'Ford v Ferrari': Film Review | Telluride 2019

Takes the checkered flag.
11/15/2019

Christian Bale and Matt Damon play 1960s racing legends Ken Miles and Carroll Shelby, respectively, in James Mangold's drama about Ford Motor Company's efforts to beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The characters can seldom compete with the cars in auto racing movies, but that’s not the case with Ford v Ferrari, a full-bodied and exciting true-life story in which the men behind the wheels are just as dynamic as the machines they drive. Fronted by fine lead performances by Christian Bale and Matt Damon as, respectively, racing legends Ken Miles and Carroll Shelby, this is a well-built vehicle in every respect that should make a good run through theaters and have a substantial home-viewing afterlife.

This is a racing saga with strong dramatic and historical underpinnings. In the world of international racing heading into the 1960s, nobody could touch Ferrari, the ne plus ultra of fast carmakers. During a company downturn, Henry Ford II and his lieutenant Lee Iacocca, who played a big role in introducing the Mustang and Ford Pinto, got it into their heads to produce a race car that could displace the Italians, which seemed like a joke at the time. But they made it happen.

Applying solid craftsmanship of their own, screenwriters Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller have hammered together a solid three-act structure that invites quick viewer investment in some hard-nosed but likable people, provides combative character dynamics among very competitive drivers and executives and gives the central figure, Miles, welcome full treatment when it comes to his racing smarts, ambitions and family life.

With director James Mangold showing a sure hand throughout, some amusing early scenes contrast the corporate culture at Ferrari and Ford. Dedicated to quality, prestige and class, Enzo Ferrari presides over his empire like a cross between a medieval lord and a mafia boss and looks down on Ford as a prince would a peasant.  If anything, however, Ford is an even more terrifying figure, a large man who makes underlings quake in his presence. Tracy Letts is fantastic in this role; when he’s onscreen, you can only watch him.

However, Ford can sometimes surprise with his edicts, and he instructs his ruthless protégé Lee Iacocca to do whatever is necessary to give the company a winner. The interlude of corporate interplay in which the Ford team travels to Italy to propose a merger bursts with humorous absurdity, as the presumption that these two cultures could ever co-exist under one roof is shown for what it is.

Appealingly, the men who might be able to give life to Ford’s dream are quickly drawn with both virtues and flaws plain for the eye to see. After a successful racing career of his own, Shelby embarked on a variety of automotive projects but signed onto Ford’s project of creating a hot car that could win the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which Shelby had won in 1959.

For his part, Shelby endured any number of speed bumps in enlisting Miles for the wacky but enticing Ford project. At the outset, Miles, a British émigré, is working as a lowly mechanic in Los Angeles, where he lives with his spry wife Mollie (a luminously sympathetic Caitriona Balfe) and engaging young son Peter (Noah Jupe). It’s not hard to deduce that Miles hasn’t gotten further in life because he’s a temperamental hard-head, easily riled and prone to rough stuff; he and Shelby at one point get into a knock-down, drag-out fight.

But Miles is talented and really knows his cars, so he and Shelby become Ford’s unlikely ticket to racing greatness. The drama’s mid-section reveals the hard knocks and combustion, both mechanical and human, that went into the development of a car that could beat the Italians, and how it got done in one year.

The film’s lively dynamics owe much to the bristly nature of nearly every relationship and interaction in the film. Miles is an unpredictable live wire with everyone except his wife and son; Shelby always seems to be juggling more balls than can reasonably be kept aloft at any given moment; the demanding Ford and Iacocca keep everyone off-balance and on their toes; and the looming deadlines and danger inherent in the profession itself provide a constant sense of unease over both professional and personal mortality. An excellent interlude in which Miles does test runs on the tarmac at LAX provides insights into what goes into a driver’s relationship with his car.

Naturally, the third act is devoted to the 1966 24-hour French driving marathon, in which two drivers take turns piloting their cars through day, night and, in this case, no small amount of rain. It’s a race Shelby had won in 1959, while Miles had already prevailed in the current year’s Daytona and Sebring competitions. It’s a difficult race to dramatize because of its length and changing drivers, and this one in particular possesses its own peculiar problem because of the way it finished. But it also has its enormous satisfactions, and the entire team that put it together must be saluted.

Bale and Damon seem enthusiastically immersed in the colorful characters they play here and they spar well together very engagingly, both when in cahoots and at odds.

The practices and attitudes, if not the ability, of big industry are placed in a pretty withering light, albeit with frequent wit, and all hands here have put in strong jobs of work that pay off onscreen.

Production companies: Chernin Entertainment, Turnpike Films
Distributor: Fox
Cast: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Jon Bernthal, Caitriona Balfe, Tracy Letts, Josh Lucas, Noah Jupe, Remo Girone, Ray McKinnon, JJ Field, Jack McMullen
Director: James Mangold
Screenwriters: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, Jason Keller
Producers: Peter Chernin, James Mangold, Jenno Topping
Executive producers: Dani Bernfeld, Kevin Halloran, Michael Mann
Director of photography: Phedon Papamichael
Production designer: Francois Audouy
Costume designer: Daniel Orlandi
Editors: Michael McCusker, Andrew Buckland
Music: Marco Beltrami, Buck Sanders
Visual effects supervisor: Olivier Dumont
Casting: Ronna Kress
Venue: Telluride Film Festival

 

152 minutes