A tense and exhilarating look into this landmark race that also takes the time to slow down and examine the men at the heart of it.
Off to the Races
I have never really been much of a car guy, but there have been glimpses into a life where I was. My first car was a nice, sporty 1990 Pontiac Firebird, but I often joked that the car was really my dad’s mid-life crisis car and I just got to drive it when I turned 16. Most of my notable car memories are tied to my father, actually. My dad worked on weekends, but he would tape Nascar races to watch when he’d get home and we would often skim through the episodes together while he educated me on the drivers and their standings. We would catch the occasional destruction derby at the state fairgrounds. And an inordinate amount of my Nintendo 64 nostalgia is tied to playing against my dad in Beetle Adventure Racing.
Many of those memories raced through my mind as I watched Ford v Ferrari (Le Mans ’66 outside the states), driven in large part by the father-son relationship between Ken and Peter Miles (Christian Bale and Noah Jupe, respectively). Peter often joins his father at the track for race days and the two share a deep love for the sport, even as Ken’s financial troubles require that he give up the racing and his own Garage in exchange for a mechanic job and steady income to support his family.
Enter Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), who has been tasked by Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) to build a Ford automobile that can defy the odds and beat Ferrari in the annual 24 Hours of Le Mans race. Shelby, one of the few Americans to have won the race at that time, tells Ford executive Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) that money can certainly build them a car that can get the job done but they’ll need the right driver to actually do it and so he recruits Ken. Miles has a bit of a reputation as a hothead, though, and quickly comes in to conflict with another Ford executive, Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), who fears how Miles might impact the Ford brand if he can’t keep his temper in check when he’s in front of the cameras. So while the American title of the film focuses on the war between two titans of the automotive industry, the real central conflicts of the movie center around Shelby and Miles v Ford and Ferrari.
Damon and Bale both deliver excellent portrayals of these real-life legends of the racing world. When we meet Shelby, he is mad at the world because a heart condition has taken him off the race track in his prime and resigned to selling cars to the Hollywood elite and Los Angeles yuppies. Meanwhile, Bale as Miles is an aggressive hothead pushing the boundaries of the rules and winning in amateur races, but with the IRS seizing his garage, he recognizes it might be best to put the dream aside for the sake of steady employment to support his family. Both men would find success down these paths, but neither would be truly satisfied so when the opportunity from Ford arrives, they relish the chance to throw themselves into their passion.
Bale gets the flashier role of the two as the quick-to-anger Miles. He knows just how great he is at what he does and he can go from zero to sixty when anyone challenges him otherwise. It’s entirely possible that his primary scene partner throughout the film, though, are the cars he races. With so much of the film taking places with Bale behind the wheel, he often manages to infuse moments big and small with incredible intensity while nobody else is even in the scene. But many of his best moments are those with his family. Caitriona Baife presents Mollie as a very equal partner in the Miles’ household and some of Bale’s scenes with Noah Jupe’s young Peter reveal the loving, level head that lies beneath the occasional firebrand temper.
While Bale gets to portray the heart of the film, Damon’s Shelby steps into the role of the head. Winning the 1959 24 Hours of Le Mans before having to abruptly retire from racing has left him with a hole in need of filling. Since his body physically can’t risk the stress anymore, his mind will have to carry the load. This manifests in his constant politicking with the team at Ford to gain and maintain control of his racing team throughout the film. While Bale gets to enjoy his time behind the wheel, Damon spends his time bouncing back and forth between the Ford offices and the pit, expertly managing the dynamics needed in both settings.
The supporting cast shine throughout the film as well. As the titular Ford, Tracy Letts exudes a larger-than-life quality of the titan of industry that essentially launches a war on the track with Ferrari after feeling slighted in a failed merger attempt. Jon Bernthal is charming as marketing icon Lee Iacocca, who essentially sets events in motion with his attempts to target Ford at a younger market interested in sports cars and excitement, while Josh Lucas’ smug Leo Beebe serves as an excellent foil to Shelby and Miles, trying to promote the Ford image and brand above all else.
A Great Paint Job
Director James Mangold (Logan, 3:10 to Yuma) expertly captures the thrill of racing. The threat of crashing is persistent throughout the film, adding an undercurrent of danger and tension every time the characters get behind the wheel. This tension gives way to an even greater catharsis when those characters manage to narrowly avoid a crash or eke out a victory at the last moment. The close quarters shots from inside the car with Miles were some of the most stressful moments I have experienced all year because we instinctively understand that even the slightest misstep can lead to disaster at those speeds and Mangold manages to effortlessly keep the audience aware of that throughout.
Away from the track, he also wonderfully captures the small moments of love and humanity between the characters: Miles explaining every intricate detail of a perfect lap to his son, Shelby convincing Ford not to fire him following a poor showing in the ’55 Le Mans, Mollie setting up a lawn chair to watch as Shelby and Miles fight one another outside the house after a tough decision is forced upon them. These moments and images will stay with me, just as my memories on the couch watching a race with my dad or changing the oil of my Firebird do all these years later.
The Final Lap
Ford v Ferrari manages to balance the excitement and thrills of a high-octane race while also providing a glimpse of what really drives these characters and their passions. The second act of the film has perhaps one or two small conflict beats more than is needed but that small bump in the road is not nearly enough to derail the wonderful story and performances within.
9.0 / 10
That Incredible Film
- Oscar-worthy performances from Matt Damon and Christian Bale
- Exciting driving choreography
- Second act of the film runs a bit long
That Nerdy Site’s Review Scoring rubric can be found here.