Despite what you may think, you don’t need to be a speed freak or even a nominal car aficionado to get your engine revved by James Mangold’s full-throttle Ford v Ferrari. It may, in fact, be better if you’re not—the largely true-to-life film is eminently accessible for even the most novice motorhead. No idea what a carburetor is? Come on in and enjoy the ride.
Ford v Ferrari begins with race car driver Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1959—a victory that would set the stage for the fast-and-furious battle waged by the two automotive giants in the 1960s. After failing spectacularly to acquire Ferrari in 1963, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) issues a mandate to his team to create a car that can win Le Mans—an event dominated by the Italian car company to that point. Ford vice president Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) has only one man in mind for the job, and that man is Shelby, who has become the preeminent sports car designer since his retirement from racing. Shelby agrees, on the condition that he can bring along his friend Ken Miles (Christian Bale) as the lead driver.
Miles, however, is a loose cannon who doesn’t fit well with Ford’s button-up image—particularly that of the company’s stodgy senior VP Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas)—but everyone knows he’s the best at what he does. Thus, the groundwork is set for the entertaining and entirely enthralling battle that Ford v Ferrari lays down in front of us over the course of the next two-plus hours. From the garage to the boardroom to the racetrack, the film never takes its foot off the gas while at the same time providing a showcase for some of the year’s finer performances.
Damon is the film’s backbone, anchoring the film with subtle yet stunning work, which would be earning even more attention and accolades than it has, were it not for Bale’s powerhouse portrayal of the eccentric Miles. Ever the chameleon, Bale, who shed 70 pounds in the wake of his turn as Dick Cheney in 2018’s Vice, brings the rough-and-tumble driver to life in vivid detail—imbuing the character with copious amounts of grease and spitfire. Caitriona Balfe also excels as Ken’s wife Mollie, and Noah Jupe shines as their young son Peter.
In the latter half of the film, as the 1966 Le Mans race takes center stage, Ford v Ferrari becomes the playground of production designer François Audouy (Logan) and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (Nebraska)—who together team with Mangold to elevate the film from what could have been “just another race car movie” into a brilliant, razor-sharp work of art.
The screenplay by brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (who re-worked an original script by Jason Keller) is occasionally a little too reliant on sports movie cliches, but there’s no fatal flaw in play by any means. Fasten your seatbelt and enjoy the hell out of this ride.