The NASCAR season winds to a close this weekend, and if you find you still need your speed fix, you can do much worse than see Ford v Ferrari. I’ll admit I was afraid that this movie would be a Ford commercial stretched out over 152 minutes, but thankfully, it’s much more than that. This historical auto racing film may not be great art, but it’s solid entertainment, whether you’re a racing fan or not.
The bulk of the story begins in 1962, as Ford Motors vice president Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) warns his company that it will lose younger customers unless it shakes off its reputation for making boring, grown-up cars. Seeking a move into auto racing, Ford offers to buy a bankrupt Ferrari company, only for old Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) to reject the Americans’ offer in the most insulting terms possible. An incensed Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) commissions a race car fast enough to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where the Italians have won five straight times. This means turning to Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a former Le Mans champion forced into retirement by health issues, and Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a driver whose skills behind the wheel are canceled out by a hotheaded temperament that has scared off sponsors.
If you get all misty-eyed for the era when American industrial might and know-how always carried the day, this is your movie. If you don’t, the film is still rewarding, starting with the way it underscores the work that happens away from the track and how the mechanics, the engineers, and yes, even the people in the boardroom contribute to wins on race day. The script doesn’t dumb down the car talk during the rapid-fire scenes in Shelby’s Ford-funded L.A. garage, where his racing team discuss improvements to be made to the vehicle. Viewers who don’t know what a gasket is can nevertheless tell that these people know what they’re talking about as they ponder how to turn Ford’s solid and reliable designs into something sleek and sexy. The writers wring much drama from the clash between Ford’s bureaucratic culture and the thrill-seeking free spirits who drive the cars and give them a chance to win. Even at this early stage of the sport, corporate nonsense clogs up the works — with Ken well ahead of the field on his way to victory at Le Mans, a Ford executive (Josh Lucas, with an unfortunate haircut) orders him to slow up so that the other competing Ford cars can catch him and provide the company with a triumphant 1-2-3 finish.
The acting makes all this go down easy. There are solid supporting turns from Ray McKinnon as Shelby’s right-hand man and Bernthal, a muscular actor who usually plays cops or soldiers but here proves he can play a business mover. Letts has a scene when Carroll takes Henry Ford for a wild test ride on a track, and it’s meant to be funny because the fat guy in the expensive suit is reduced to weeping from fear in the passenger seat, but the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (who has been busy acting these days in Lady Bird and The Post) puts some reality behind it, too — the guy whose name is on the company has no conception that any car is capable of moving like that.
The movie runs off the dynamic between the glad-handing Texan good ol’ boy Shelby and the crusty English gearhead Miles, whose first meaningful interaction with Shelby is to throw a crescent wrench at his head. Despite that, over the course of working on this project, they come to respect each other as men, as competitors, and as guys who love the feeling of going fast. A great scene happens when Miles is excluded from the 1965 Le Mans race and tinkers in Shelby’s garage, diagnosing what Ford’s drivers are doing wrong just from listening to the radio play-by-play of the race.
The film has a metaphor at work: It contrasts Ford’s emphasis on profits, production, and catering to the mass market with Ferrari’s emphasis on craftsmanship, quality, and running their company like a boutique. Ford v Ferrari asks, why can’t someone do both? It seems that pulling off that balancing act is the peak of your profession, and that’s true whether you’re making cars or movies.
Starring Matt Damon and Christian Bale. Directed by James Mangold. Written by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller. Rated PG-13.