Matt Damon and Christian Bale star as two racing legends at the center of a duel for vehicular dominance that’s a thrill ride with an emotional supercharge
We start out with former racer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), relegated to selling cars after his high octane driving career sent him into high blood pressure territory that becomes life threatening. His British hot-headed friend Ken Miles (Christian Bale), both a second to none racer and mechanic, is either pissing off race judges, customers at his mechanic shop or getting his business shut down by the IRS. He’s given support by his wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe, good in a very traditionally underwritten wife role) and his son Patrick (a stunningly good Noah Jupe, this kid is the real deal).
For Henry Ford II, the legacy of his grandfather’s car company is in a downward spiral in the 1960s and with nary a good new idea coming down the assembly line he’s ready to shut the whole thing down. “The next man who comes to my office with an idea keeps his job,” he says to the autoworkers. As played by the steely, brilliant Tracy Letts, Ford is a man stuck in the past with no insight on the future.
In steps a young executive named Lee Iacocca (who would later revive the Chrysler Corporation in the 1980s) who suggests that the first generation of post-war children are now the age to drive and they don’t want the old fashioned cars of their parents, they want the sports cars of Italy. He details that the Ferrari company has consistently won Le Mans and suggest that Ford buys Ferrari. After a contentious meeting with Enzo Ferrari, backdoor dealings sink the plan and make Ford and his team look like buffoons.
The redesign of the Ford GT 40 becomes a central point of the film, with Miles constantly tinkering with ways to improve its performance but Shelby knows that it’s not the car that wins the race, it’s the driver. This sets up (maybe one too many) battles with Ford and his team of sycophantic execs (led by a slimy Josh Lucas, in full mustache-twirling villainry) that jockeys back and forth between allowing Miles to drive for Ford or whether they should go with a more “Ford type driver” that will fall in line in front of the cameras. You can guess how well that works out for them. A ride by Shelby gives Ford a first-hand look at what it really means to drive and race and provides the film with one of the three father/son scenarios that pepper the film’s subtext.
Christian Bale is known for his physically transformative performances. Less than a year ago we just saw him as former Vice President Dick Cheney. In Ford v Ferrari he yo-yo’s back to his much thinner self, nearly gaunt once again, his features so sharp and pointed as if he has a metal endoskeleton lurking just underneath his skin. His work here is far more than appearance though, it’s truly one of his very best ever. Navigating a character who is so uniquely talented, balancing just the right amount of hubris that it takes to take so many risks and have them pay off, Bale makes it seem effortless. Like Ken Miles, there are simply things that only Christian Bale can do and do right.
“At 7000rpm, where everything fades, it’s like a body moving through space and time,” says Damon at one point in one of a few existential espousings from the script by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller, but it doesn’t feel hammy. Damon plays Carroll Shelby with such conviction that you believe him.
The film earns its 2h 32m running time by punctuating the incredible driving and racing sequences with supercharged emotional counterpoints but it is definitely the racing that proves itself so compelling. The camerawork by Phedon Papamichael is visceral and the Oscar-worthy sound design by David Giammarco and Donald Sylvester is truly stunning. The superb editing by Andrew Buckland and Michael McCusker does something actually genius: it doesn’t go for tons of fast cuts to pretend to accelerate the story, it lets the thrill of the race do it.
The majority of the final act of the film recreates the 24-hour of Le Mans race in 1966 with the US battling Italy in a way that mirrors the space race between the US and the USSR that was happening at the same time. It’s a grueling race, full of crashes and tragedy but a cinematically technical marvel.
Whether you know the outcome of this story or not (I went in knowing nothing about this) shouldn’t affect your ability to be fully immersed into this world and invested in this story, one of feuds and friendships, triumph and defeat.
Ford v Ferrari comes out November 15 from 20th Century Fox.