The saying, ‘they don’t make em like they used to,’ gets bandied about a lot these days in reference to going to the movies. The reality is that for all the hand-wringing over the lack of adult fare, too many superheroes, etc., there are still plenty of options for moviegoers not content to wait for streaming, to just stay home and Netflix. James Mangold, veteran of professional, compelling genre fare (‘Girl, Interrupted’, ‘Walk the Line’, ‘Logan’), has crafted a thematically old-fashioned but technically brilliant crowd-pleaser in ‘Ford v Ferrari.’
The film accounts the true story of how two stubborn automotive savants, Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles, staved off constant corporate interference to deliver a race car for Ford Motor Co. that would go on to successfully beat perennial Le Mans champ Ferrari in the mid-1960s. That these men are played by movie stars Matt Damon and Christian Bale respectively, with a supporting cast of familiar faces, and the races are expertly staged to put the audience in the front seat, only adds to the Hollywood of it all, in the best of ways. Shelby, a driver himself until he’s sidelined for cardiac problems, would go on to famously put his unique stamp on the Ford Mustang, transforming it from an eye-catching curiosity into a signifier of American muscle. He’s playfully portrayed here by Damon, who brings the cocky Everyman sensibility he’s so great at, with just the right hint of sadness. As he’s so prone to do, Damon steps out of the way of his boisterous costar Bale, who yet again transforms himself bodily into the cockney, difficult, yet loyal Ken Miles, a true driving prodigy. Bale’s solo scenes inside the machines that come to define him somehow energize what could have come across as static. He blusters hilariously during adversity, speaks to the car as if it was another person, and serenely falls into a sort of trance when emulating sequences where he takes perfect laps traveling at mind boggling speeds.
The bravura engineering, testing, and racing sequences are bridged by an unsurprising but engaging narrative, culminating in what can only be described as an incredibly gripping extended race sequence like no other. The movie posits the essential tension of independent thought and creativity versus corporate systems and process. Tracy Letts in prosthetics plays Henry Ford II, the son of the man who revolutionized manufacturing with the assembly line. Not satisfied with just the financial success of his company, he longs for the respect afforded craftsmen like Enzo Ferrari, more artist than businessman. When the European rejects the American attempt to purchase the bankrupt company, an infuriated Ford vows to beat him at his own game by designing a car that can withstand and win the storied 24-hour car race that is Le Mans. By hiring Shelby, and Miles as his default driver/race car whisperer, the suits end up in constant odds with the wildcard creatives. It comes down to the main event itself, here presented in finely re-created detail for the movie’s final third, to cement the melding of innovation and machinery, the theme that American ingenuity and thus the economy, is beholden to both . . .
Directed By: James Mangold
Written By: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, & Jason Keller
Running Time: 152 min.
* * * 1/2 (out of 4 stars) -OR- B+