For law enforcement looking to increase revenue, the best place to set up a speed trap this weekend is outside any movie theater showing “Ford v Ferrari.”
James Mangold’s luxurious, thrilling ode to fast cars and the men who drive them mainlines the need for speed into the viewer, whether you’re driving home in a Lamborghini or a Kia Soul. Yet it’s not just a high-octane ride that puts you in the driver’s seat, but an old-fashioned, analog entertainment that studies and celebrates the men addicted to going faster than the other guy.
There are two of these mavericks in this film, set in the early-to mid-1960s and based on a true story. One is Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), the former driver who transitioned into auto design and car sales after hypertension forced him off the track. The other is Ken Miles, a talented and temperamental driver whose refusal to play well with others has kept him from success. Miles technically works for Shelby, although the socket wrench Miles hurls Shelby’s way might indicate otherwise.
Fate intervenes in the form of the Ford Motor Company. Its sales have taken a nosedive, and young hotshot ad exec Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) has an idea. Ford should build the world’s fastest race car and take it to France’s storied Le Mans race. If they can win and beat Ferrari, which has dominated the race four out of the previous five years, it will change Ford’s image forever. Company head Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts at his plummy, funny best) is initially lukewarm to the idea, but after Enzo Ferrari personally slights him, he gives the go-ahead.
Iacocca and duplicitous Ford exec Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) know Shelby is the best man to build the car. But Beebe doesn’t want the irascible Miles, who he doesn’t consider an all-American “Ford driver,” to be behind the wheel.
So “Ford v Ferrari” follows two intertwining tracks. Miles has the easier job of it in a way, pushing himself to become the fastest, best driver he can possibly be, helping Shelby and his team (including the terrific Ray McKinnon as Shelby’s lead mechanic Pops) tweak the machine to perfection. Shelby, meanwhile, has to navigate the byzantine world of corporate America, and decide just how much he’ll play ball with Beebe’s interference. At heart, Ford wants to sell cars. Miles and Shelby want to win.
There are three big racing scenes in the film, at the beginning, middle and end, that are absolutely stunning, capturing the excitement and the danger of high-speed auto racing. While I’m sure CGI is employed, it’s largely invisible, and the sequences emphasize authenticity as much as possible.
But Mangold and screenwriters Jez Butterworth, John Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller make sure the energy doesn’t flag between the races, with a screenplay full of great lines, hairpin plot turns and rich supporting performances. Central to the film is the bond between Shelby and Miles, and how two somewhat difficult, iconoclastic men became friends and worked together to achieve something great.
Bale, slimmed down from playing Dick Cheney in “Vice,” has the showier of the two lead roles as Miles. He has a loopy, sardonic energy, aware that his inability to suffer fools has cost him dearly, but unwilling to live life any other way. He’s also deeply devoted to his wife (Caitriona Balfe) and idolizing son (Noah Jupe).
Damon brings a laid back, good old boy vibe to Shelby that masks his canniness as he tries to outwit Beebe and keep Miles on the team. The charged affection between the two men is fun to watch, especially a hilariously awkward middle aged man fistfight between the two that’s very un-Bourne and un-Batman.
The gorgeous production design revels in the style of the early 1960s — it’s like a classic issue of Esquire magazine splashed across the screen. They don’t make them like they used to, either the cars or the movies. But “Ford v Ferrari” comes damn close.