In the mid-1960s, the slumping Ford Motor Company took a bold turn: The American institution best known for its mass production scale decided to build the world’s greatest boutique racecar and topple master car designer Enzo Ferrari.
To achieve victory, the company turned to an unlikely duo. Driver Ken Miles was an eccentric, exacting perfectionist, and designer Carroll Shelby was a racer-turned-car-salesman who held the distinction of being the only American ever to win the notoriously punishing 24-hour race in Le Mans, France.
Director James Mangold’s historical dramatization, Ford v Ferrari, co-starring Christian Bale as Miles and Matt Damon as Shelby, isn’t so much a movie about speed as it is about the pursuit of speed. It’s a process movie; think the inventive engineering of Apollo 13 or the elaborate computerized codebreaking of The Imitation Game.
Damon puts on a big-ass hat and Texas swagger to match as Shelby, whose affable, quiet intensity is a foil to Miles’ bug-eyed passion. This is skinny Bale in full-on The Fighter/The Machinist mode, convincingly channeling obsession as only an obsessive can. He’s riveting even when he’s talking to himself in the car. This electricity, coupled with Damon’s grounding presence, makes for a tremendously winning team.
Outlander star Caitriona Balfe, essentially the only woman in the movie, is relegated to the thankless task of playing Miles’ Standard-Issue Supportive Wife, whose sole function is to provide the hero with maternalistic care spiked with an eyebrow-raise’s worth of skepticism, just enough to lend her the veneer of an actual character. (This same role befell the talented Claire Foy in last year’s historical Oscar bait, First Man, which pretty much told you its gender politics right there in the title.) Balfe is talented, but her character’s inclusion feels entirely compulsory.
It’s linguistically apropos that the big race the film is centered on is called Le Mans—this is a movie about Le Mans and the men. Ford v Ferrari is catnip for middle-aged white dudes, not even so much a bromance between the leads as it is an almost fetishistic ode to engineering and a Protestant work ethic.
But here’s the thing: It’s really good.
The true story of Ford’s audacious move against Ferrari is perfectly suited to film. This is reality as genuine crowd-pleaser, shaded with the just the right amount of complications and melancholy.
Mangold and his pit crew of writers capture it expertly. He makes two hours of watching car repairs fully riveting. When at last the time comes to show off that speed, the final 30 minutes of racing sequences are some of the best ever put onscreen. The action, the historical detail, and the ace lead performances are bolstered by an exceptional supporting cast that includes Jon Bernthal, Tracy Letts, and Ray McKinnon.
Ford v Ferrari, like the car it celebrates, is a high-performance machine created by a tremendous team effort. Even when the film takes a few familiar laps, it’s a thrill.
Ford v Ferrari
Director: James Mangold
Starring: Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Caitriona Balfe
Theater: Area theaters, starts Friday