Directed by James Mangold
Starring Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Caitriona Balfe
If the filmmakers telling the story of how Ford beat Ferrari in Le Mans in 1966—oh please, this isn’t much of a spoiler: the outcome is available to anyone with a working internet browser—wanted to attract only motorheads who consume Top Gear in its multimedia forms, then they couldn’t have come up with a more scintillating title than Ford v Ferrari. The rest of us whose eyes glaze over at discussions about the finer points of difference between a Maserati and a Lamborghini might find it a little harder to hurdle this true-life tale’s self-congratulatory, “boys will be boys” vibe.
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Not that it isn’t entertaining. Even though the film begins with Matt Damon’s Carroll Shelby, the American who helped pilot the Aston Martin that prevailed over Le Mans’ grueling 24-hour course in 1959, the story really begins in the mid-‘60s with Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), whose takeover bid has just been brushed off by Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) with a barrage of insults. None of the slurs really make a dent until the kicker, as conveyed by a marketing drone named Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal): “He says you’re not Henry Ford. You’re Henry Ford II.” From that point onward, it’s war, and Ford will throw his company’s massive resources behind putting together a racing team led by Shelby, who by then has had to retire from driving because of a bad heart.
The laid-back Texan will then recruit Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a maverick British driver who adores his wife and son (Caitriona Balfe and A Quiet Place’s Noah Jupe) but can’t help but speak his mind around cars that don’t meet his exacting design standards. Together, facing the arcana of racing regulations and—more significantly—the interference of corporate interests, the two men will design and drive the car that Ford desperately wants to beat the arrogant Ferrari over the head with.
It’s not hard to be entertained by an underdog story. And the film is never more alive than when director James Mangold’s camera swoops down to the eye-level of sleekly designed sports cars zooming by, never more bone-rattling than when cars ram into each other at the starting line or tumble end over end at the track. But the screenplay by playwright Jaz Butterworth (with assists from his brother John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller) can’t help but fall into the conventions of based-on-true-events storytelling. There is the obligatory three-sentence addendum, the mandatory black-and-white photo of the real Miles and Shelby (less physically striking than the actors who play them by miles). There is even a cliched shot of the Hollywood sign framed by palm trees. But mostly there is the expected bromance between Bale and Damon, whose squabbles we’re supposed to find cute and whose flouting of corporate directives we’re supposed to find heroic.
Ford v Ferrari stuffs a lot of masculine pride (there are multiple references to fighting in World War II, as well) and discussion of mechanical inner workings in its two-hour-and-32-minute running time. Meanwhile, in the interests of 21st-century equal representation, you can almost sense that one of the screenwriters was hired to punch up Caitriona Balfe’s supportive wife role, in much the same way Claire Foy got to “speak her mind” and widen her eyes in anger in last year’s First Man. Balfe, so regal and fierce in the Starz time-hopping romantic saga Outlander, gets two great moments in the film, but when all the narrative heaving is done, her role is really just that of a bystander. At one funny but telling moment, Shelby and Miles hash out a past difference by wrestling on a grassy patch across from Miles’ house, and Balfe takes a fold-out chair onto her lawn and watches them go at it with a patronizing smile on her face. You might find your girlfriend doing the same when you take her to see Ford v Ferrari.
Photographs by 20th Century Fox