Ford v Ferrari: Boys and Their Toys
The 24 Hours of Le Mans, one of the world’s most prestigious car races, is a challenge of engineering and endurance. Not only does a company’s racing division have to construct a car capable of handling 24 straight hours of driving, often at speeds approaching 200 miles per hour, but they must also field a team of drivers for that car, individuals who have the mental and physical stamina to repeatedly maneuver around the course at high speed and on very little rest. Fortunately, despite its 150-minute runtime, Ford v Ferrari is not an endurance test, as director James Mangold dramatizes the lead-up to the 1966 Le Mans race (as well as the race itself) by crafting a good old-fashioned underdog story that will have audiences checking their watches far less often than their on-screen counterparts.
Understanding that the Ford Motor Company may be a tad too successful to position as viewers’ true rooting interest, writers Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller smartly orient the story around Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a former Le Mans winner turned small-time car manufacturer, and Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a down-on-his-luck racer and mechanic struggling to make ends meet. When Shelby is recruited by Ford to help them build a car that will beat those designed by Italian automaker Enzo Ferrari (a scheme thought up by Ford’s marketing department as an attempt to boost dwindling sales), Shelby brings along Miles to help design the car and eventually be the primary driver at Le Mans. What follows will be no great shock — at least structurally speaking — to most anyone who’s seen their share of sports movies over the years. Shelby and Miles spend the next two hours fighting the odds, their emotions, and occasionally each other in their pursuit of the final race’s ultimate glory. Now, this isn’t necessarily a criticism. Part of the appeal of certain types of films rests on inherent predictability and the comfort that comes from familiar emotional highs and lows doled out at semi-regular intervals. With the right creative partnerships, the “based on actual events” sports narrative has a baseline entertainment level that hits the spot more often than not, and Ford happens to be blessed with quality talent on both sides of the camera. As a director, Mangold has developed a knack for turning out something close to the platonic ideal of each genre he works in — whether it be the music biopic (Walk the Line), the western (3:10 to Yuma), or the comic book adaptation (Logan) — though he hasn’t quite shown the ability to truly break out of their confines. He benefits here from the presence of Damon, whose ability to carry a film with his blend of twinkle-eyed humor and bursts of authentic emotion is put to excellent use, and sturdy supporting turns from Tracy Letts and Jon Bernthal. But if there is one player here who comes close to truly transcending the familiar structure and fairly run-of-the-mill screenplay, it’s Bale; with Damon doing much of the plot-related heavy lifting, he’s free to really sink his teeth into the psyche of the volatile driver who at his core embodies the sanctity of the sport. Bale’s Miles shines in tender moments with his son Peter (Noah Jupe) and his wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe, doing what she can with a woefully underwritten role), as well as during the race sequences, where the actor manages to key the audience in to every thought going through the character’s head through nothing but his body language and subtle shifts in his expressions. Bale is given plenty of opportunities to showcase these techniques as the film steadily intersperses various races, including the Le Mans itself, which takes up the bulk of the movie’s back half. This is where Ford really shines — the races are exhilarating, effectively shot and edited to provide a sense of speed and weight that is often missing from modern blockbusters. The sound design is particularly impressive, overloading the theater with groaning metal and squealing tires that make you feel as though you're right there inside the car (or at least on the sidelines with the pit crew). The combination of the technical bravura on display and the genuine chemistry between Bale and Damon serves to elevate the film beyond the sum of its component parts; Ford might not break the mold, but it knows how to execute the fundamentals. In the end, it’s hard to argue with results.