“Ford v Ferrari” Movie Review


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     Standout performances by Matt Damon and Christian Bale are the key ingredients revving the finely tuned engine of director James Mangold’s “Ford v Ferrari”, a period film set within the high stakes world of racing where Ford looked to supplant Ferrari as having the fastest cars in 1966.  What ensues is an exhilarating ride through the arduous task of creating new technologies capable of setting new standards for speed and durability of which the Italian owned Ferrari had practically written the book.  For race fans, “Ford v Ferrari” is an obvious must see, but for the rest of us, the film serves as a sterling example of exceptional craftsmanship both in front of and behind the camera. 

     The screenplay by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller knows the core of the story isn’t the race sequences, nor is it the cars in the showroom or on the track, though these elements are sure to impress the many gear heads certain to be in every audience.  What makes “Ford v Ferrari” so incredibly fascinating is the personalities behind every character.  And Mangold ensures we will know exactly where each of their motivations lie, what their tendencies are under pressure, and what skills they bring to the table that allow them to be in the room in the first place.  Why is this important?  Because the endless shots of race car drivers in the front seat as they push their vehicles to the threshold of 200 MPH is not a time where dialogue will come across as anything more than reactionary.  Meaning we won’t gain that necessary character development in these scenes and are typically only paying attention to the action set piece aspect of the scene anyway.

     Filmmakers frequently make the mistake where their action sequences supersede the kind of dialogue scenes where we as an audience have the best chance to learn about a character.  When we are introduced to Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), he’s racing in a French event called the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which, as indicated by its namesake, is a race that covers some 3000 miles over a non stop 24 hour period.  Carroll won the race in 1959, but retired shortly after when his doctor discovered a heart condition crippling any chance he had of continuing to survive the rigors of the sport.  But the one time racing champion would re-invent himself in the 1960s, creating Shelby-American, a driving school and high performance car innovator specializing in car customization.  His reputation for this type of work became so well known that a certain big name client with an ax to grind against a foreign competitor came knocking with an offer he couldn’t refuse.

     Essentially, Ferrari had dominated the racing scene for years, and Ford Motor Company, led by Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) and his trusted marketing advisor Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), was looking to join the party.  After an attempt to buy Ferrari was met with insult, Henry Ford directed Lee to go to Carroll with a blank check and an order to build a Ford that would defeat Ferrari at Le Mans, a laughable proposition at the time.  Caroll’s confidence in building such a machine was reasonably high, but the first thing he knew Ford had to do was get the right driver.  And Carroll’s recommendation was Ken Miles (Christian Bale),  of whom he believed was one of the few drivers in the world who not only had the skill, but also the endurance to actually finish the race.

     Some of the best scenes in “Ford v Ferrari” are built from the incredible egos of all involved, as if the stakes of winning are as important as life and death.  Competitors in any sport at this level will often proceed under this notion, but you can feel the emotion behind every character’s drive to win at all costs.  And where you would expect Carroll and Ken to put forth whatever it takes to succeed given that doing so would mean reaching the absolute pinnacle of their craft, it’s the businessmen who utilize the kind of cutthroat tactics normally reserved for issues that will ultimately effect their bottomline.  Here, Ford only has recognition to gain, as they have spent untold millions on the development of the technologies necessary to build a car capable of winning the race.  But it’s that respect and admiration guys like Henry Ford II and Lee Iacocca crave.  The knowledge they are dominant in every aspect of the car manufacturing business is what they are willing to sacrifice anything for.  It’s as if they want their competition to kneel before them.

     All of this comes across, not because of the action sequences, but because of a well written script performed by an outstanding ensemble of actors, which is then brought together by Mangold’s vision of the material.  Never before have I seen a film about racing where the characters seemed so alive.  Even the relationship between Ken and his wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) and their son Peter (Noah Jupe) adds another emotional layer to the proceedings where the pressure to win is contrasted with the need for him to also come home.  These were dangerous times with many of the technological advancements we now take for granted were only being tested or hadn’t been invented yet.  

     “Ford v Ferrari” is the kind of crowd pleasing entertainment which doesn’t come along very often, combining elements of the best action films with the narrative and acting requirements of a true awards contender.  Sure, Mangold gives the audience several breathtaking sequences featuring brilliant stunt work and CGI, but at its core, the film is as good a character drama as you’ll see all year.  GRADE: A