“Ford v Ferrari” is tense, timely, and transcendent

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Ford v Ferrari 20th Century Fox

The best American sports movies are never really about sports; they’re about vulnerable heroes striving to beat invulnerable foes. We don’t even need to see our heroes win—the pleasure is in seeing them try, and fight like hell. These films are fundamentally underdog stories, and James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari is no exception. With Carroll Shelby’s team up against Enzo Ferrari and the Ford company, Ford v Ferrari is David versus Goliath versus Goliath.

For the uninitiated: it’s the 1960s, and Ferrari has won the 24 Hours of Le Mans five years in a row. In an attempt to boost sales and appeal to a younger generation, Ford tries to buy Ferrari—and fails. So Ford changes tactics, and decides instead to try beating Ferrari at Le Mans. The company seeks the help of Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) to build a race car that’ll do the job, and Shelby chooses just the right man to help him, his old friend and race car driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale). The suits at Ford keep interfering with Shelby and his team, however, and Ford racing director Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) has it out for Miles, who’s just not a “Ford man.” Even if you already know how the story goes, the film is gripping.

Ford v Ferrari is tailor-made for dads, gearheads, and dads who are gearheads. There are real ’64 Ford Fairlanes in the Ford factory, vintage Ferraris at the Ferrari factory, plenty of Cobras, Daytonas, Porsches, and even a Country Squire. (Not one real vintage race car was harmed during the making of this film.) Though visual effects were used to recreate Le Mans, the racing itself was done practically, and it feels real. The only whiff of the artificial comes during one of the races, when Ken Miles sees Ferrari’s race cars and comments, “If this were a beauty pageant, we just lost.” (Shelby counters, “Looks aren’t everything.”) Considering the GT40 was a gorgeous machine and a work of art, this might just stick in your craw.

Ford v Ferrari
20th Century Fox

The film is expressly not just for car enthusiasts, though. As in all good dramatizations of history, there are inaccuracies and embellishments, but the movie transforms the true story into something more lyrical. When Shelby could no longer race because of his heart condition, Miles became his proxy on the track, and Ford v Ferrari captures the symbiotic relationship between the two men. It’s also a moving tribute to Ken Miles, who’s gotten a bit lost in the legend, edged out by the story’s bigger personalities: Henry Ford II, Enzo Ferrari, Lee Iacocca. Damon’s performance is subtle and compelling; Bale’s portrayal of Ken Miles might be his best work yet. His Miles is a difficult hothead who remains sympathetic, and though Shelby is as much a protagonist as Miles is, it’s Miles we ultimately root for.

Tracy Letts as Henry Ford II and Jon Bernthal as Lee Iacocca are also standouts in the film. But there are no weak links in this ensemble, and everyone delivers, from Ray McKinnon as Phil Remington to Caitriona Balfe, who is wonderful as Ken’s wife Mollie Miles. In almost every biopic about a great man, there is a hysterical wife who excoriates her husband because his calling to change the world is inconvenient or dangerous or whatever. It’s a tedious, reductive trope that Ford v Ferrari blissfully avoids. Like Shelby’s crew, Ken and Mollie are collaborative. She never chews him out over the risks of racing—only for not being honest with her and for being a bad teammate.

Ford v Ferrari takes its time building relationships and tensions. When the racing begins, it isn’t just sound and fury signifying nothing; the film’s ribcage-rattling action has meaning when we know the men behind the wheel. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael’s racing footage ranks up there as some of the best ever filmed, visceral and involving, marrying the intensity of Mad Max and the elegance of Grand Prix. Images like the reflection of a race car in Ken Miles’s goggles will stick with you. And its sound design is impeccable. Whenever a speeding car is in frame, its engine should be the loudest thing we hear, and Ford v Ferrari follows this essential rule of filmmaking.

Ford v Ferrari
20th Century Fox

Ford v Ferrari is a buddy story, a sports film, an old-school drama—and a western. Though Mangold’s played with many genres throughout his career, the western dominates his filmography, from his remake of 3:10 to Yuma to more covert westerns Cop Land and Logan. Here, drivers and cars are not unlike cowboys and their horses, and Shelby’s and Miles’ dynamic is Butch and Sundance. There’s a lawlessness to the racing world, with the racetrack presented as a final frontier of masculine freedom, and Shelby and Miles do their best to preserve it. One of the classic western conflicts is homesteaders against big business, and in this iteration, a scrappy band of unlikely heroes goes against a massive car company and an automotive empire. Ford v Ferrari may be a throwback, but it has something subversive and timely to say about sticking it to the man.

Ford v Ferrari is about art and passion triumphing over commercialism, and it’s also a clear metaphor for movie making, if we imagine Carroll Shelby as the director, Ford as the studio, and Ken Miles as the prickly lead actor. However, Ford v Ferrari more generally concerns the creative impulse and all that entails—dealing with pride and egos, taking risks, making sacrifices, striving for the Platonic ideal (which Ken Miles calls “the perfect lap”), and the satisfaction that comes with our efforts finally paying off. Ford v Ferrari is a film about people putting aside their egos and coming together to create something transcendent.

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