A film review by Craig J. Koban November 30, 2019

FORD V FERRARI jjj

2019, R, 152 mins.

 

Matt Damon as Caroll Shelby  /  Christian Bale as Ken Miles  /  Jon Bernthal as Lee Iacocca  / Tracy Letts as Henry Ford II  /  Caitriona Balfe as Mollie Miles  /  Noah Jupe as Peter Miles  /  Josh Lucas as Leo Beebe  /  Ray McKinnon as Phil Remington 

Directed by James Mangold  /  Written by Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth

The new historical sports drama FORD V FERRARI is one of the more engaging and purely entertaining films of the fall thus far, bolstered by the absolutely winning the winning and charismatic tandem of Oscar winners Matt Damon and Christian Bale as well as its staggeringly impactful and technically brilliant racing sequences.  

The fact based tale chronicles how the Ford Motor Company - led by a crackerjack team of engineers, designers, and one seriously talented and hard nosed driver - looked to make a car that would not only compete at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans race in France, but one that could also defeat the always odds on favorite Ferrari.  Like all great sports films, director James Mangold's (LOGAN, COP LAND, WALK THE LINE) effort here delivers on all requisite genre elements while simultaneously honing in on its rich menagerie of compelling characters and personalities that dominated Ford's desire for speedway excellence.  It's a gripping sports film, to be sure, but an even better and more finely tuned up human interest story that just also happens to be made with tremendous showmanship and skill. 

The thought of a two and half hour film about a corporation designing and building a sports car to assume industry dominance might not be everyone's cup of tea, but FORD V FERRARI manages to be thoroughly transfixing throughout its long - and mostly earned and well oiled - running time, mostly because all of the personas involved - from the highest of the higher ups to the grease monkeys themselves - are intriguingly developed here.  As the film opens we are introduced to Henry Ford II (perfectly cast and played in a quietly authoritative performance of intimidating might by Tracy Letts), a deeply dissatisfied CEO that's grown weary of the types of business failures that have beset the company his grandfather started decades earlier.  He wants new ideas and innovations brought to the table, one of which is served up by a young executive Lee Iacocca (Ian Bernthal), which is initially a tough sell for the tough as nails Ford: He wants Ford to buy Ferrari, seeing as it's now become a hot and sexy auto company.  Ferrari's head honcho is not particularly flattered by such a proposition, and is so insulted that he manages to even insult Ford's arrogance (and weight gain) to add insult to his pride.  Ford, of course, is predictably furious, which leads him to enact a revenge scheme to get back at his business enemy: Sparring zero expense, assemble the best people in the industry together to make a sports car that will crush and destroy Ferrari on the race track at Le Mans.   

Sounds simple, right?  

 

 

Not really, seeing as Ferrari spends most of their time and money on meticulously researching and hand crafting their sports cars, giving them years of research head start versus Ford.  Good ol' Henry isn't phased, though, and he unleashes Lee and his second in command in Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas, in great slimy, boot-licker mode) to seek out and hire former Le Mans winner Caroll Shelby (Matt Damon) to help lead the charge of a creative team (he can no longer race due to some lingering medical issues, but still longs to succeed on the track, in one form or another).  Caroll, in turn, decides to hire hotshot and difficult-to-work-with British driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale), who takes up the challenge ahead with great enthusiasm, despite his reputation for being an anti-team player.  However, he makes up for it in terms of being a brilliant mechanic and an even finer racer, but Ford and Leo don't seem too convinced about Ken's worthiness to drive in the big race, let alone his hand's on involvement in making what would become the Ford GT40. 

FORD V FERRARI may be about a corporation trying to build a vehicle that will crush another corporation's prized auto, but it's more intrinsically about the brotherhood of team players - some members being able to gel together and play nice with one another better than others - and the unlikely bonds that formed in the process of building the Ford GT40.  Distilled down to its essence, then the film, yes, basically concerns the proverbial big climatic showdown between the powerful Ferrari and the struggling underdog in Ford, but when you dig deeper underneath that superficial surface then it's clear that there's more going on under the hood of this story than simply winning a race.  FORD V FERRARI wisely showcases the sometimes hostile battle of egos and pure gluttony that accompanied Ford's desire to win at all costs, and even more compellingly outlines the supreme engineering feat - and trial by error mistakes - that were largely at play in ensuring said victory.  It's one thing to build a fast car, but another manufacturing feat to build one that's fast and maneuverable and could withstand the rigors of a 24 race.  That's the deceptive hard part. 

Of course, this film would gain very little mileage (sorry for the racing puns) with weak writing, and FORD V FERRARI does a remarkable job with most of the real life participants that figured into this enterprise, all spearheaded by one of the very best ensemble casts in recent memory.  Caroll is a fascinating character, driven to dominate and win vicariously through Ken, seeing as he can't get behind the wheel anymore himself; he's an example of a sports figure that has to channel his skill set in his sport into a behind-the-scenes role that helps out a larger team effort.  Ken is a thoroughly well realized character here as well, a family man driven to financially support his wife (a very good Caitriona Balfe) and son, but his fiery and deeply combative nature of putting up with no BS whatsoever and wanting to do things his way puts him at odds with Ford and his lackeys.  He's everything but a loyal company man that tows the line.  Then there's Ford himself, who has become somewhat ashamed at the devolution of his once powerful car company that's driven by an insatiable desire to hurt and humiliate his competition...and while achieving a technical miracle in the process.  From top to bottom, FORD V FERRARI hones in a commendable amount of screen time on the psychologies of all of its players. 

The fire and gasoline combination of Damon and Bale is such a resoundingly strong fit for this material, both playing respective characters that lock horns - verbally and sometimes physically - over tactics and strategies.  Caroll is the calm, restrained, and pragmatic go-getter of the pair, whereas Ken is aggressively outspoken and standoffishly intense.  Despite both characters being at polar opposites of the personality fence, Damon and Bale have such a wonderfully unforced and natural on-screen chemistry that it's a small wonder why they've never worked on screen before this.  Damon usually doesn't get enough credit for being understatedly effective for his less-is-more and spare performance choices, but he's superb at evoking all of Caroll's inner drives as well as deep seeded insecurities.  And then there's Bale himself (who crazily gained weight a year ago to play the portly Dick Cheney in VICE and now crazily has lost a bunch of weight to play the vastly skinnier Ken), a force of nature that relays his character's bronco busting attitude and cocksure bravado.  I know that Bale isn't a larger part of a conversation for Oscar consideration this year, but he's so damn effortlessly great in his thanklessly layered and tour de force performance in FORD V FERRARI; he literally steals this film away from everyone else.   

Obviously, FORD V FERRARI would also sink or swim when it comes to its racing sequences as well, and the wily industry veteran in Mangold wholeheartedly delivers a polished and viscerally charged final product that thankfully doesn't feel like a lot of VFX or computer trickery was at play in its historical recreations.  There are very few sports centric films that I would go out of my way to emphasize as being deserving of cinema consumption, but FORD V FERRARI needs to be seen on the biggest screen possible with the best sound imaginable.  Even though the film isn't wall to wall with racing action, when the sequences come they're as technically potent and well crafted as anything I've seen this year.  Everything from the dry run practice sessions to the big races themselves is rendered with stupendous cinematography and inventive editing that emphasizes clarity and precision.  Mangold never loses conceptual grasp on the piece as the story hurtles towards the inevitable climatic Le Mans race, during which time you can literally smell the tire rubber ripping through the pavement and the base heavy sounds of multiple engines roaring makes for one incredibly immersive experience.  And unlike so many other recent and heavily bloated films with running times too long for their own good, FORD V FERRARI races by with a slick momentum and rarely feels the burden of its 152 minutes. 

On a nitpicky front, I wish that a bit more care and attention was giving on the screenplay front to Lucas' character, who essentially becomes a fairly one-note corporate stooge/villain in the film to provide conflict when the narrative requires it.  Still, that's a minor quibble that doesn't distract from the whole, because FORD V FERRARI is the type of muscle powered and high octane entertainment that Hollywood doesn't seem all too invested in making anymore.  Sports and car aficionados will absolutely eat Mangold's film up, but I think that other filmgoers will come out of it greatly admiring its heart pounding racing sequences, its fine attention to character dynamics, and its endlessly intriguing behind-the-scenes expose of how one auto giant wanted to out class the other, and all of the blood, sweat, tears, and multiple sacrifices that went into such a daunting task.  FORD V FERRARI confidently crosses its  finish line as an exemplarily designed piece of crowd pleasing genre filmmaking.

  H O M E