Ford v Ferrari was directed by James Mangold (Walk the Line, Logan) from a script by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller, and recounts the unbelievable true story of the Ford/Ferrari rivalry leading up to the 24 Hours of Le Mans automobile race in 1966. Matt Damon plays American car designer Carroll Shelby, a former winner of Le Mans who no longer races due to nerve damage he sustained during a crash which led to an explosion, burning part of his body in the process. When Ford Motors is on the down and out, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) sends Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) to see Shelby, asking him to build the greatest racecar the world has ever seen to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and steal the title right out from under the nose of Enzo Ferrari, who seems to enjoy insulting Ford Motors more than he does winning races and just picked up his fifth consecutive win. Such a large request, though, comes with endless complications, and Shelby’s pick for the car’s ideal tester and driver is Ken Miles (Christian Bale), the purest racer he’s ever seen on the track. Unfortunately, Miles is not a people person, and as Ford is attempting to rehabilitate its image, they are understandably nervous about keeping him on, regardless of his ability. With the company on the line, and only 90 days to build the perfect machine, Shelby and Miles must prove to Ford that not only are they the right men for the job, they’re the perfect men for the job. The film also stars Caitriona Balfe, Josh Lucas, Noah Jupe, Remo Girone, and Ray McKinnon.
James Mangold seems to be one of those filmmakers that never makes it into the “greatest of all time” conversation either because he simply hasn’t made enough movies to qualify just yet, or because every time he makes one, people seem to forget who directed it until his next one comes out and we’re all reminded again that this guy has been churning out remarkably solid-incredible stuff since the late 90s (albeit with a few exceptions thrown in the mix). I’ve always enjoyed Mangold’s approach to filmmaking, and was entertained by the projects he picked, perhaps the most notable of which is his 2017 X-Men film, Logan, which went on to receive a nomination in the Best Adapted Screenplay category at the Oscars that year (a first for comic book films in such a competitive and limited category), and was the film which many felt featured the best supporting performance of that year with Patrick Stewart’s last bow as Charles Xavier. It was in researching his other films and once again noticing the likes of Walk the Line (which many still contend is Joaquin Phoenix’s best performance), the hit reboot of 3:10 to Yuma, and the laughably underrated The Wolverine that I came to a conclusion which I hadn’t yet considered the director’s work: James Mangold makes dad movies, and while I certainly don’t know if Ford v Ferrari is his best film overall, it’s by far the best example of why he works so well within that particular niche.
They’re two completely different kinds of films, to be sure, but Ford v Ferrari might well be the best sports movie I’ve seen since the first Creed, and certainly the best I’ve seen in theaters from a pure filmmaking standpoint in a very long time. Mangold directs this film the way Ken Miles and Carroll Shelby approached building the car that they’d go on to race at Le Mans, with impeccable precision and a fierce, pure love of what they crafted, which one can see so clearly as the product (both the film and the car in the film) fulfills its intended purpose. This is one of the most thoroughly entertaining films of the year from the start of the opening credits when you hear the engines roar all the way to the checkered flag and the final epilogue, and it’s Mangold’s firm direction, sure and controlled, that steers this movie right to where it needs to be at the exact moments it needs to be there.
The performances in the film are all great, particularly those of Christian Bale and Noah Jupe, the latter of whom I had hoped to see in Honey Boy before this, but nonetheless impressed me here in a supporting role as Ken Miles’ son, a role brilliantly assisted by Caitriona Balfe as Miles’ loving but stern wife, who takes no bullshit from him but never stops supporting him either. Many have cited this as one of Christian Bale’s best performances ever, and while I might not go quite that far, you’d be hard pressed to get me to disagree on any meaningful level. Ken Miles is a racer; that is everything he knows and loves, and every second Bale is on screen, he oozes passion for racing and an immeasurably short fuse for anyone who doesn’t feel as passionately about it as he does. It’s a real shame Fox is putting both him and Damon up for lead actor, because in the supporting category (which I contend is where Bale should have been put, anyway), Bale might have had a legit chance at landing an Oscar nomination for this movie.
Even Tracy Letts and Josh Lucas get more to do here than they ever have before, especially Lucas as Henry Ford II’s right-hand PR man; I’ve never seen him so wonderfully frustrating. We understand where he’s coming from in attempting to rebuild Ford’s image, but even so, we can’t help but feel Damon and Bale’s frustration that he keeps hindering their progress by trying to get rid of Ken Miles behind the wheel. And speaking of Matt Damon, I don’t know that we’ve ever seen a performance this restrained from him. Damon’s always been one of the most gifted actors out there at playing just about anything (though short of an actual Oscar win for his performances), but it remains impressive in this film just how dialed back he is from even his usual fare. His turn as Carroll Shelby is where the film finds its ultimate heart, its thematic purpose; he doesn’t just want to build cars, drive them, be a part of racing, he has to, and that thematic arc for his character runs through every setback, progression, and stalemate he has in the film. I love The Martian and Good Will Hunting as much as the next guy, but sometimes, it’s worth remembering that Damon is also great in less “showy” roles, and Ford v Ferrari is a great reminder of that.
The film is also shot remarkably well, and while I would have liked for some images to last a bit longer on the racetrack, Phedon Papamichael’s camera never betrays that he’s hiding anything from the audience by the way it moves or frames up the action. I didn’t quite notice it at first, but after walking out of the theater, one of the things that struck me most was how the whole film was shot like a racing highlight reel, except with the camera in on the action instead of just observing it from afar. It’s an ingenious trick that sneaks up on you the more you think about it, and after considering it for some time, I came to the conclusion that apart from those select shots I would have liked to be just a bit longer, the movie is almost perfectly photographed, the camera capturing exactly what it needs to capture in exactly the way it needs to capture it. The cinematography is so precise, so sure of its placement, the only other film I can think to compare it to in terms of the shooting being a sort of high wire act of near-impeccable precision is this year’s Parasite.
The key to this movie, though, the one thing it had to get right above all else, was the racing. If the racing in Ford v Ferrari isn’t exciting, breathless, tense, fast-paced, frenetic, or any combination of all or any of those terms, the movie doesn’t work, and the entire project might as well just be called “Shelby and Miles.” Luckily, the film has a brilliant little trick up its sleeve as it takes place during the lead-up to the titular (well, titular in Europe, anyway) Le Mans race of 1966, a trick that this year’s other "racing" movie failed to employ: it’s got plenty of exciting, breathless, tense, fast-paced, and frenetic racing scenes that all come together beautifully thanks to brilliant sound mixing and editing, as well as showstopper film editing from Andrew Buckland, Michael McCusker, and Dirk Westervelt. The camera doesn’t stay with the other drivers much, as most good sports movies are more about the personalities and how they clash than they are the sport itself, but when Ken Miles is barreling down the track at 7000 RPM and 220 miles an hour, you can practically feel the wind in your hair as his car zooms through the screen, the hum of its engine vibrating beneath your feet. These are some of the most immaculately crafted racing scenes perhaps ever put to film, and the price of admission is worth it for those alone; it just so happens we also get a great movie to go alone with them.
If there are any flaws in this film at all, they hide behind an almost impenetrable exterior, the only cracks in it being a few technical moments which, to be honest, I’m not sure the filmmakers would have had time to fix, considering Logan only came out last March and Mangold has had just two years or so to make this movie. There are a few moments where more frequent movie-going eyes might be able to spot some out-of-focus green screen composites, and to some, they will be bothersome, but they don’t happen very often in the film, so even as they do bring it down a peg or two, the movie remains so high up on the ladder it would be a disservice to allow those moments to scratch its paint.
I don’t know if Ford v Ferrari has a whole lot of hope in terms of its Oscar chances in non-technical categories (and still think it’s a mistake to campaign both Damon and Bale as leads), but to be frank, this is one of those instances where I just don’t care that much whether this film gets deep into the awards or not. What’s on the screen is what’s on the screen, and what’s on the screen with this film is a brilliant racing movie filled with remarkable races, great performances, fantastic editing and production design, magnificent sound, confident direction, a solid script that managed to pull some of the best work out of each of its many participants, and the best damn dad movie of the entire year. What a photo finish for Mangold and company.
I’m giving “Ford v Ferrari” a 9.3/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.