During a time of year when every movie seems to be either spectacle or award’s bait, it is nice to see something that only wants to entertain audiences with a good story. Ford v Ferrari is a well-made, well-acted, well-written production that is just plain fun to watch. This is one of those cases where I knew where it was going, but the suspense worked on me anyway because I was enjoying myself so much. Despite being based on a true story and taking place in the 1960s, this is not a dry history lesson. It is fast paced (its 147 minutes (minus the end credits) flew by), old school storytelling, with two really strong star performances and consistently compelling drama. Sports movies are generally not my thing; I tend to get bored with the tired, predictable formula. However, when the formula works, it can be a great time at the theater. It definitely works here.
In 1963, the Ford Motor Company, run by Henry Ford II, decides to build a race car to try to defeat Ferrari in the 24 Hours of Le Mans race. They hire automotive designer Carroll Shelby (who won the race in 1959) to build the car. He brings in his friend, hotheaded Ken Miles, to be his driver. Together, they set out to create the perfect vehicle for Le Mans as they deal with appearance-minded executives who know nothing about racing and the challenges of figuring out how to beat a Ferrari with a Ford.
The intelligent decisions started with the casting of the two lead roles. Matt Damon plays Carroll Shelby, a smart guy who knows how to sell himself to people. He is friendly, charming and good at what he does. Christian Bale is Ken Miles, arrogant and blunt. He loves auto racing (as well as his wife and son), yet cannot stay out of his own way long enough to give himself opportunities. He has certainly earned his reputation for being difficult to work with. Director James Mangold gives them time to establish themselves before the plot totally kicks in. Both actors are engaging and enjoyable, never trying too hard to make their characters sympathetic, while accomplishing that regardless. Damon has to handle the heavy lifting of exposition and plot points. Bale is responsible for the emotion. They each perform their duties smoothly and effectively. I would not be surprised if at least one of them gets nominated for an award in the coming months.
The racing material is kept relatively easy to follow. Though there is some technical speak, the characters are so well developed that I knew what they meant even if I did not understand the exact phrases they were using. The focus is always on what Carroll and Ken are going through, making it easier to get invested in the drama. When the race does come, it is exciting because I cared about these men and wanted them to succeed, not because of the action. I have seen more purely thrilling car races in the movies, but the ones here fit so seamlessly with the tone and style of the rest of the production. It is not the movement of the cars that matter. It is what Ken is making the car do and how Carroll reacts to it that makes it so enthralling.
Ford v Ferrari is precisely what it intends to be: fun, exciting entertainment that relates a true story in a captivating way. I have no idea how accurate it is to the real personalities involved. That does not matter here. It is not trying to make a statement; it just wants to give us a good time. It is hard for me to imagine this particular movie made any better. Mangold, Damon and Bale’s work will not have you leaving the theater thinking about life or society. What it should do is leave you feeling very much like you got your money’s worth.
4¼ out of 5
Christian Bale as Ken Miles
Matt Damon as Carroll Shelby
Caitriona Balfe as Mollie Miles
Noah Jupe as Peter Miles
Tracy Letts as Henry Ford II
Josh Lucas as Leo Beebe
Jon Bernthal as Lee Iacocca
Ray McKinnon as Phil Remington
Directed by James Mangold
Written by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller