Much like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was earlier this year, Ford v Ferrari is a throwback to a bygone era of blockbusters. Instead of being based on any well-known IP or existing brand, we have a true story which is anchored by two heavyweight performers at the top of their respective games. A big studio film like this is truly rare in a filmgoing landscape so dominated by brands over movie stars and material. Just like the characters within this story, the passion is clear from everyone involved. Being given a chance to make a film like this made everyone step up their game.
It’s understandable that one wouldn’t be hugely privy about what Ford v Ferrari is about. It’s the mid ‘60s and Ferrari is dominating the racing industry, winning the four of the last five Le Mans—and they don’t look like they’re stopping anytime soon. Enzo Ferrari himself promptly rejects a buyout from Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) that doesn’t go down well with Ford in the slightest. To a powerhouse like Ford Motors, this feels like a declaration of war. They decide to create a car to challenge Ferrari’s reign on the 24 Hours of Le Mans race. Carrol Shelby (Matt Damon) is a former racer who had won the Le Mans back in 1959, pre-Ferrari domination. He signs onto Ford’s seemingly impossible task of winning the Le Mans ‘66. But this can’t be done without Ken Miles (Christian Bale), one of the best drivers on the circuit who works as a mechanic to make a living for his wife Mollie (Caitríona Balfe) and son Peter (Noah Jupe). He’s the one man who can take Ford to victory, but his erratic demeanour isn’t exactly what Ford wants.
James Mangold (Cop Land, 3:10 to Yuma, The Wolverine) is a director who has worked in a multitude of different genres, but it was his last film Logan—one of the most acclaimed comic book films in recent memory—which really cemented him as one of the most interesting directors working today. Comparing this to his other work, Ford v Ferrari has the most in common with his acclaimed 2005 Walk the Line. That film was a classic musical biopic in its structure and was very much a blueprint of that genre—having been heavily parodied by Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story only three years after. This, on the other hand, feels like a classic underdog-driven sports drama which follows those beats but still manages to deliver something fresh.
Above all, this is a story about passion. While Shelby and Miles will occasionally butt heads, they have a connection because they both do what they do not for any money, but because they truly have a deep love for cars and racing. I’m in no way a car racing fan, but the idea of having passion for a certain thing is universal, and that’s what will make this film connect more with a wider audience instead of solely car enthusiasts. It’s a really strong thematic angle for writers Jez Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow, Get On Up, Spectre), John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller to take. When Mangold came on board he was insistent that he wanted as much character drama as there was car racing, and that balance is executed perfectly.
Much of the film’s conflict arises from Miles seemingly not being a team player and or a good image for Ford as a company. However, the reason that Miles is such an incredible driver is because he thinks for himself and doesn’t bow down to others’ orders and demands. Despite everyone else’s ambivalence towards him, he’s almost always right. Under a less talented director and an actor who isn’t as accomplished as Bale, Miles could come across as unlikable, but it’s his precision within his scrappy and occasionally snarky exterior that makes him a very likable character to follow. Unfortunately for Shelby, he has to try and please the executives at Ford while knowing deep down that Miles is the only person who can help Ford deliver the impossible and win Le Mans.
Mangold does an extraordinary job executing the film’s large-scale racing sequences. They are utterly pulsating in every way, but still have great moments of character throughout. It’s so important to be able to lock in on an actor’s face during these intense situations because it communicates so much about character. In the case of Miles when he’s racing, he’s always quipping and lets so much of his emotions out vocally. Yet, when we’re placed into a more internal silent moment, there’s a palpable sense of determination and focus; we know exactly why he’s a pro at what he does. It reads like a blatantly obvious observation, but so much of this is communicated through Bale’s eyes alone.
While car racing and corporate manoeuvring may not sound instantly compelling, it’s the constant wit amongst the film’s emotional moments which helps to keep it lively throughout the lengthy 152-minute runtime. A fair amount of the film’s humour comes from the incredibly lively Bale performance. Miles isn’t afraid to be chirpy and snarky but there’s never an unnatural mesh between the film’s humour and its really strong emotional moments—often involving the Miles family as a whole. Despite how often amusing it is, there’s not an ounce of bathos. The Miles family dynamic is really strong throughout with some of the film’s most effective emotional moments coming from when Bale and young Nope Jupe are on screen. The scene on a racetrack at dusk is one of the most human moments of the film—a simple father and son bonding scene. In a film with incredibly kinetic and pulse-pounding race sequences, this simple bonding moment hits just as hard. Jupe proves that after A Quiet Place and now this, he’s easily one of the best child actors working today.
Damon brings what some would call a cowboy-like roguish charm to Shelby, but it’s definitely not a showy performance in all of the best ways. Shelby is often always clashing with someone, and there’s a real composure to Damon’s performance that works in tandem with this character. Later in the film, he’s truly able to bring real emotional heft which leaves a lasting impact. It’s not close to being Damon’s showiest role, but I’d argue it’s one of his best. Caitríona Balfe can sometimes be relegated to the stock wife role, but there’s enough emotional moments that work between them for her character not to feel null and void.
Sometimes in the Butterworth brothers and Keller’s screenplay, the motivations of characters can feel too unclear moment by moment. It’s a minor gripe because the emotion and thematic beats of the story are executed quite strongly from a writing standpoint. I also wouldn’t call it a subversive screenplay in terms of genre, it very much follows a classic sports film structure. But again, Mangold’s direction, the performances, and emotional weight of this story renders that no problem.
Films like Ford v Ferrari don’t get made as often as they should anymore. Unfortunately, blockbusters which aren’t based on well-known properties just don’t sell well today. The biggest endorsement of this is that it’s not only aimed at car enthusiasts. In fact, I’d call it easily one of the tensest films of the year when Mangold’s incredibly white-knuckle race sequences are on show. However, if you’re not invested in the people within this story, the racing doesn’t matter. You’re invested in Shelby and Miles at every moment. The bursts of humour and the film’s more tender moments work as well as the extraordinary racing elements do. We should take a pure crowd-pleaser like this whenever it comes along.
Ford v Ferrari is in cinemas now!