Ford v Ferrari
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Run Time: 2 hours 32 minutes
Stars: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Tracy Letts, Caitriona Balfe, Josh Lucas
Writers: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, Jason Keller
Director: James Mangold
If you opened the hood of the Fast and Furious movies and dropped in a brain, you might come up with something like Ford v Ferrari, a film with all the screeching tires and howling engines of that simpleminded street racing series, but with engaging characters and a refreshing dose of history set in a universe that is, unlike the F&F franchise, observant of the actual laws of physics.
It’s 1966, and Italian car maker Enzo Ferrari has just humiliated the mighty Ford Motor Company: He led Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) to think he’d be willing to sell his boutique nameplate to Ford, then abruptly pulled the rug out. Ford’s fury over the episode might have dissipated in time as a business deal gone wrong but for one twist of the knife: Haughty Ferrari sent word back to Detroit that the current president of the company “Is not Henry Ford…He’s Henry Ford II.” (He also called him fat.)
Letts, who as an actor continues to do more and more with less and less, is almost scary in the scene. His shark-like stare never widens and the tightening of his jaw is nearly imperceptible. But there’s no mistaking he’s Krakatoa about to erupt, Mount St. Helens ready to blow. He’s internal combustion personified, and he channels his thirst for revenge into a plan to show Ferrari who’s the real boss when the rubber meets the road.
Ford determines the best way to repay Ferrari’s insult will be in the most public way possible, and that means beating him on the racetrack — specifically the 24 Hours of LeMans, of which Ferrari is the undisputed king. He hires America’s greatest race car driver and designer, Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) to not only whip up a car that will outpace Ferrari’s lineup, but to do it before the next LeMans race, less than four months away.
Shelby accepts the outrageous assignment only because Ford is willing to pour every drop of the company’s resources into the project. He asks just one thing: That he get to hire his own driver, a roughneck, ragged-edged fellow named Ken Miles (Christian Bale), known as much for his hot temper and habitual insubordination as for his mastery of the race driving arts.
Ford and his button-down board balk —Miles is not what they see as a “Ford Man” — but Shelby insists, and the film’s most thrilling race, the one to put four wheels on the pavement of Le Mans in 90 days, is on.
As fine a screen actor as Damon is, his performances are basically variations on two themes: Easygoing Matt (We Bought a Zoo, Ocean’s 11) and Intense Matt (The Bourne movies, The Talented Mr. Ripley). This time out he’s the former in spades, a laid-back Dallas-born maverick whose good-old-boy demeanor softens an insatiable ambition to be the fastest man alive if not behind the wheel (he’s had to give up driving due to a heart condition) then at the drawing board.
Bale, on the other hand, once more seems to emerge from an alternative universe to play a character utterly unlike any he’s ever tackled before. As the easily irritated Brit driver Ken Miles, Bale hurls wrenches, spits invective, and generally abuses the Ford suits. But he’s not an angry man — he’s one who feels deep emotions and happens to express them in unfortunate outbursts. Happily, the film offers generous moments of Miles sharing everyday life with his endlessly understanding wife (Outlander’s Caitriona Balfe) and adoring son (Noah Jupe); passages which don’t soften his personality so much as add dimension to his complex and, in the end, warmly appealing character.
The film’s best scenes come when Damon and Bale let the chemistry of their characters jell together, opposite personalities filling in each other’s blanks to create an irresistibly appealing pair. The guys love and fight like brothers — especially in a particularly delicious scene outside the driver’s house, beating each other up with such affectionate frenzy Miles’ wife can only pull up a lawn chair and enjoy the WWF-like spectacle.
Director James Mangold (Walk the Line, Logan) probably lets Ford v Ferrari make a few laps too many; we could use a little less time in the board room, especially when the film labors to set up a stuffy executive, played by Josh Lucas, as the film’s villain. To his credit, Lucas does establish his guy as one the audience would dearly love to see end up as a speed bump in the racing pit.
We may see several names from Ford v Ferrari on the list when Oscar nominations come out, but most deserving will be Letts as Henry Ford II, if only for one exquisite scene in which he browbeats Shelby into taking him for a ride in the prototype race car.
After wedging the burly Ford into the passenger seat, Shelby hits the gas, and off they go on the test track. The camera focuses on Letts’ face as his emotions shift every time Shelby hits the clutch: Shock, thrill, terror…and finally, when the Ford GT40 skids to a halt, a torrent of tears springing from the well of a man who, despite his plush environs in the executive suite, is still in his heart a car guy. He’s Henry Ford, after all.
Featured image: Matt Damon and Christian Bale in Ford v. Ferrari (Merrick Morton TM and © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. Not for sale or duplication.)
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