Despite its name, Ford v Ferrari isn’t about cars. Most of the dialogue and imagery concerns automotives, but the film is really about two driven people who have devoted their lives to racing, and how this passion brings them together to triumph.
“There’s a point, 7,000 RPM, where everything fades, where everything disappears,” the opening voice-over explains. A race car is going 220 m.p.h., yet everything is moving in slow motion. Director James Mangold brings intimacy to the action, inviting audiences to ride shotgun in his lean, mean, entertainment machine.
The man behind the wheel is driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Before the legendary driver teams up with former racer/designer Caroll Shelby (Matt Damon) in 1966, no one could compete with Ferrari at the 24 hour race of Le Mans. Since the Italian mechanics were given carte blanche, they had the upper hand on the corporate-run Americans. But Shelby and Miles were built tough before it was Ford’s slogan, working nonstop to even the playing field.
After his company fails to purchase Ferrari in the ‘60s, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) takes it personally and declares war against the company. This leads to Shelby and Miles to join forces for the first time. Having caught on fire in a scene that recalls Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights, Shelby has been stripped of his driving career. Now, Ford has hired him to manage their racing department, and he wants Miles to lead the pack at Le Mans. Miles is the best man for the job, his vaulting obsession unparalleled. But he isn’t the best look for a corporation whose image is conveyor-belt-conformity. He has slumped shoulders, an unkempt beard and a temper that goes from zero to 60 quicker than any of the ferociously fast cars seen throughout.
Not only has the film recreated a chockablock of vintage cars, with GT40’s on full display, it has also refashioned an old school vibe that will remind viewers of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Like the films of Howard Hawks (The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo) characters fuel the plot, the dialogue is snappy and a three act structure keeps everything moving at 200 m.p.h.
It’s also a sports movie where two Davids battle two Goliaths. They face the higher-ups at Ford, led by Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), as well as the finger-waving Italians run by Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone). Shelby and Miles are easy to root for, even when they’re fighting. In a scene that starts with a few friendly punches and ends with a loaf of Wonder Bread being used as a weapon, they are enjoyable to watch, their dynamic chemistry and star power rivaling Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in this year’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. But what differentiates this bromance from that one is subtlety. Tarantino knew how popular his stars were, and wanted audiences to see the actors on screen as well as their characters. Damon and Bale steer clear of recognition, and disappear into their roles much more effectively.
Watching the duo trade torrents of ridiculous insults is as enthralling as the racing sequences. Which is saying something since the climax at Le Mans is just as intense as a Rocky movie. “It’s eight-and-a-half-miles of country road” Shelby warns Miles. Le Mans is more than that, though. It’s a track without rules.
The suspense of the race is riveting, even though the outcome is predictable. By warping background elements as a framework for speed (people, trees, grass), as well as nailing the sound design (wind, engines), it feels as if you are in the car with Miles every lap of the way. One memorable sequence sees Miles and a Ferrari neck and neck, both slamming on the gas without passing each other.
Regardless of who finishes first or last, the greatest victory in Ford v Ferrari is the way Mangold stays true to his relentless pacing and loquacious characters. Unlike his previous work on Logan and Wolverine, here the director puts all the pieces together and creates a rare crowd pleaser that flies. Hopefully slower-paced Hollywood directors will take notes. To quote Hawks, Mangold’s greatest influence, “they’re moving pictures, let’s make em’ move!”