Ford v Ferrari (PG-13)
01/12/19 00:56 Filed in: 2019
Directed by: James Mangold
Starring: Matt Damon
Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!
Based on the actual events that took place at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in 1966, Ford v Ferrari sets up a David v Goliath scenario where an American driving car brand (Ford) tries to dethrone the perennial champion Italian race car brand (Ferrari). To mix sports metaphors, if this sounds like the “Miracle on Ice” for the racetrack, you’re in the ballpark.
The movie opens at the 1959 Le Mans, where bleary-eyed Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) pushes through fatigue and rainy weather to win the famed European car race. Jump forward a few years to a board room meeting at the Ford Motor Co. Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) wants some new ideas to move the company forward. A member of the marketing team, Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), comes up with a wild idea…a Ford race car.
Ford PR specialist, Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), enlists the aid of Shelby and his team of engineers to build a prototype car for the express purpose of defeating Ferrari at Le Mans. Though designing and building the car proves to be a colossal effort (especially since they’re only given 90 days), an even greater challenge is getting everyone to agree on who should drive the car. Shelby wants his long-time friend, Ken Miles (Christian Bale), but the Ford team wants anyone but the abrasive, hotheaded speedster. The drama that ensues has just as many treacherous turns as the legendary racetrack.
What initially attracted me to this film, after seeing the trailer, was the winning combination of Matt Damon and Christian Bale. Here are two A-list actors at the top of their game in perfectly-cast roles delivering pitch-perfect performances. Acting of this caliber is a joy to behold and screen chemistry this refined is a true rarity.
Fortunately, the great performances don’t end with Damon and Bale. The movie is chock-full of terrific supporting actors like Letts (The Post), Lucas (Glory Road) and Bernthal (The Walking Dead). Other memorable performances are turned in by Caitriona Balfe (Outlander) as Miles’ wife Mollie, Noah Jupe (A Quiet Place) as Miles’ son Peter, and Ray McKinnon (Fear the Walking Dead) as Shelby’s reliable and wise assistant, Phil Remington.
Director James Mangold (Walk the Line) strikes the perfect balance between character moments and action scenes, lest one or the other should drive away with the movie. Mangold captures gritty, organic performances from his actors. One of the most remarkable bits of acting is when Ford II breaks down after Shelby takes him on a test drive in the new race car. Letts masterfully modulates (gear shifts) his emotions to the point where we’re not quite sure if he’s laughing or crying. An unforgettable scene.
Although all of the movie’s race sequences are spectacular (like the unforgettable “brake fade” scene), the start of the Le Mans race is a ferocious, frenetic experience, especially the images shot from Miles’ POV, where cars spin out of control or shatter into mounds of debris right in front of him. Thanks to Mangold (and his cinematographer, Phedon Papamichael), the race scenes aren’t overly jarring or one big motion blur as seen in many action movies today. Also effective is the way Mangold crosscuts action on the track to drama (or comedy) in the pit.
The movie perfectly captures the milieu of the 60s. From clothes, coifs and cars, to products (sodas in glass bottles) and advertisements (a giant billboard of the Coppertone girl), the attention to historical detail in the film is remarkable.
Though all the main characters are well-drawn, Miles is a particularly fascinating character study. Despite his propensity to spout off about whatever’s on his mind (his critique of the new Ford Mustang is priceless), Miles has trouble communicating with his wife. Miles initially keeps her in the dark when he’s approached by Shelby to help design the new Ford race car. Later, when Mollie drives recklessly down the road (in a humorous role reversal, the race car driver has fits of anxiety over his wife’s driving), he finally confesses that he might be in line to drive at Le Mans. Interestingly, Miles’ Le Mans experience begins and ends with the words “slow down.”
Unlike with his wife, Miles has no problem talking with his son. There are two beautiful father/son scenes in the movie. The first is when Miles takes Peter out to the racetrack at night. Miles envisioning the “perfect lap” is a magical moment. On the eve of his departure to France, Peter shows his father a hand drawn map of the Le Mans race course. In another teary moment that reveals the special bond between father and son, Miles describes to Peter how to handle each part of the track.
The political tension between the suits and the grease monkeys is a diverting story element and serves a necessary role since there isn’t an actual villain in the movie. If there’s a downside to the constant friction between the pit and the box seats, it’s that it takes our attention away from the race. As a result of the political sidebars, the movie never quite captures the war of attrition that’s waged on the racetrack as was convincingly portrayed in Steve McQueen’s Le Mans (1971).
In the final analysis, Ford v Ferrari is a high-octane biopic fueled by sure-handed directing and top-tier acting. Though not an overt “buddy movie,” Damon and Bale deliver stellar performances as loyal friends who have a need for speed.
Ford v Ferrari is a long film that never feels long thanks to its bracing drama and pulse-pounding action sequences. The movie should receive nods in many categories come awards season.
Ford v Ferrari is a fairly clean and wholesome movie. The movie’s major blemish (grease stain) is that it’s inundated with unsavory dialog, specifically expletives and crass speech. Other than that caveat, the film is recommended for history buffs, gearheads or lovers of well produced films.
The most accurate description of the film comes from one of its most amusing lines…Ford v Ferrari is “finer than frog fur.”
Rating: 3 1/2 out of 4