Matt Damon & Christian Bale are in first gear in the true story of the race to make the fastest car in the world.
Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is having a rough go of things. A former race car driver, Shelby had to give up the profession due to medical issues, and now spends his days trying to make ends meet running Shelby Automobiles. Shelby gets his chance to dance with glorious victory again when the Ford Motor Company calls on him to be a key figure in Ford’s foray into the world of international racing. If Ford wants to achieve its ultimate goal of beating out Ferrari at the Le Mans race, Shelby knows there’s only one driver for the job: hot-shot Ken Miles (Christian Bale).
Much like Moneyball or Fighting With My Family, Ford v. Ferrari is catnip for fans of the sport it’s based on, but if you’re a total novice, you’ll still end up enjoying yourself. What’s important in Ford v. Ferrari is not the automobile minutiae, but the characters and their struggles,and those can be enjoyed by both general audiences and racing fanatics alike. The character of Ken Miles is an especially universally entertaining creation. This driver is very much in the mold of the loose cannon who still gets results archetype we’ve seen time and time before, but if there’s anything Ford v. Ferrari is good at, it’s slapping a coat of paint on the familiar and making it feel brand-new.
Bale’s performance is especially critical in making sure Miles is able to stand on his own, instead of reminding one of past cinematic rule-breakers. Typically, these characters are defined as younger individuals walking around with overt swagger, but Bale plays Miles as a scrappy-looking fellow who could easily blend into a crowd. It’s when you rile him up that his outspoken nature creeps on out and begins to bubble to a boil. It’s been a while since Bale just played a normal person, without the aid of prosthetics or extreme vocal tics (he gets to use his actual English accent here), and it turns out this gifted actor is still able to incorporate all kinds of delightful details into a much more grounded performance.
If there’s anything Ford v. Ferrari is good at, it’s slapping a coat of paint on the familiar and making it feel brand-new.
Both Bale and Damon are acing it in the lead roles of Ford v. Ferrari, while screenwriters Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller have a more erratic track record of success in the film. An early heavy amount of focus on the goings-on of Ford executives, including a failed attempt at merging with Ferrari, feels like an ill-advised move in the larger context of the story. These subplots focused on rich dudes in suits, who end up being just background figures in the lives of Shelby and Miles, are extraneous, and could easily have been dealt with in throwaway dialogue. Meanwhile, instances of clumsy dialogue and an amusingly over-the-top sleazeball villain in a Ford executive out to get Miles stick out as cartoonish creations within a movie that’s usually able to keep its fingers on a human pulse as easily as the steering wheel.
On a more positive note, the script is able to nail small but crucial moments of character-building, especially when it comes to interaction between the two lead characters that make you easily buy them as long-time pals. It sneaks up on you how invested you are in their dynamic, which is always an enjoyable feeling to experience. Plus, when it comes to staging nailbiter racing sequences (the real showstopper scenes of the production), the screenplay for Ford v. Ferrari comes through and then some. As said earlier, you don’t have to be a race car fan to get swept up in its scenes of automobiles racing each other — they’re so engrossing to watch that even the biggest NASCAR hater will be bowled over.
Such scenes are where director James Mangold really seems to come alive. He does solid work throughout the whole movie, but when it comes time to show Ken Miles behind the wheel of a car going really really fast, Mangold truly shines as a filmmaker. Placing the camera directly in Miles’ car or on its hood immerses one right in the middle of these pivotal races, and both the editing and impeccable sound work further ensure that you feel you’re on that racetrack alongside Shelby and Miles. Ford v. Ferrari is a totally conventional feature in some respects, but these racing scenes really stand out as something special, and more often than not it’s able to make the conventional mighty enjoyable to watch.