Ford v Ferrari (Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Josh Lucas, Jon Bernthal, Caitriona Balfe, Tracy Letts) – In the early 1960s, auto racing wasn’t a very popular spectator sport in the U.S. except for the Indianapolis 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Richard Petty was emerging as the dominant driver in NASCAR. Mario Andretti and Jackie Stewart roared out of Formula One and Indy cars in the mid-60s.
Ferrari, the Italian car maker named for its founder, dominated the luxury sports car market and Formula One racing. No other automaker came close. Henry Ford II couldn’t stand the idea that his family’s company, which produced millions of passenger cars and had been instrumental in helping win WWII against the Axis, including Italy, was playing second fiddle to a company it unsuccessfully tried to buy. Plus, Ford was about to launch the Mustang, the revolutionary sports car that would take the American market by storm and make Lee Iacocca, Ford’s marketing genius, a corporate superstar.
Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) was a race car driver who was named Sports Illustrated’s driver of the year in 1956 and 1957 before switching to Formula One, winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1959. After his riding career was cut short by heart issues, he turned to designing race cars, to selling sports cars to rich people, and to modifying existing cars for racing.
As told in Ford v Ferrari, Iacocca approached Shelby to propel Ford into a viable competitor to Ferrari. With an almost unlimited budget and a guarantee of independence, Shelby said yes, bringing his team, including his friend and driver/engineer Ken Miles (Christian Bale) with him.
Ford v Ferrari is more about the Shelby-Miles partnership and bromance than it is about two car companies going at it for prominence in racing. It paints Ford II (Tracy Letts) as a despot and his executives, led by Executive Vice President Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), as meddling villains. Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), a corporate survivor with a vision, is a notable exception although he, too, is as much a suck-up as everyone else in the executive suite.
The movie is excellent, especially if you like car racing. It soars as it places the audience on the track and in the cockpit. It also bogs down a bit there. There have been plenty of movies about car racing, all of which attempt to give the audience a taste of racing at 200+ miles an hour. Ford v Ferrari does this better than any other; it just does it for too long. I can’t imagine the hours that Bale had to shoot tight close-ups leaning left and right, turning the steering wheel and changing gears, all while talking to himself.
Although secondary to the racing, director James Mangold makes a valiant attempt to humanize the story by exploring Miles’ relationship with his wife, Mollie (Irish actress Caitriona Balfe), and his son, Peter (Noah Jupe). Miles’ passion for his family is only rivaled by his love of cars and racing.
As Miles, Bale predictably steals every scene. Damon, to his credit, lets him. As much as this is a buddy film, it is not the acting that makes FvF work; it’s the technical wizardry. In addition to Best Picture, the film is nominated in Film Editing, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing, not in any acting category or for direction. This is an action-packed, fast-moving pic that grabs you while illuminating some sports history that only car race fanatics know.