*******Ford v Ferrari spoilers below*******
Ford v Ferrari tells the story of the mid-60s feud between the Ford Motor Company and Ferrari, specifically their cutthroat attempts to beat each other at the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance racing event. It picks up sometime in 1965 ahead of that year’s event as Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is hired to build a car for Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) that will beat Enzo Ferrari’s at that year’s Le Mans. However, unnecessary corporate oversight and the company’s unwillingness to put Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a hotheaded driver who doesn’t do well with authority behind the wheel of the car. Shelby convinces Ford II to trust him with the ’66 race and the business tycoon tells Shelby to “go to war.” With Miles behind the car and an extra year to finetune their design, the Shelby American Racing team does everything they can to beat Ferrari and win the 1966 race.
I’m going to shoot straight here, there are very few things in this film that don’t work. First though, let’s go through the most impressive parts. And at the very top of that list are the performances by both Matt Damon and Christian Bale. Damon is one of Hollywood’s finest leading men but, let’s be honest, is one that usually just plays a different version of himself in every movie. In Ford v Ferrari however, that is not the case. Damon inhabits the role of Carroll Shelby with ease and poise that I honestly didn’t expect, and I’m a Damon fan. His accent, his facial expressions, the way he walks, it all points to an actor who’s intimately in tune with the real-life figure he’s portraying. Bale is equally as good, though his role isn’t as transformative as Damon’s. He brings the same committed intensity we’ve come to expect from the actor over the years though and Ken Miles will surely be at the top of his ‘Greatest Roles’ list for years to come.
When it comes to the supporting performances, most of the actors on hand pull their own weight and then some. Tracy Letts, in particular, brings all the scene-stealing bravado you’d expect from the grandson of one of the world’s most important businessmen/inventors. Jon Bernthal and Caitriona Balfe also bring their own brand of authenticity to their roles as Lee Iacocca and Mollie Miles, respectively. I was even impressed with Noah Lupe as Ken Miles’ son Peter, there wasn’t a hint of overacting or stale line-reading from him, which is impressive for such a young performer. Just about the only performance that didn’t work for me was Josh Lucas as Leo Beebe, Ford II’s second in command. Lucas hams it up as a mustache-twirling villain akin to the rival quarterback in a movie about high school football. In all fairness though, his outright maliciousness at times does make the audience root for Miles and Shelby that much more when the race comes.
And speaking of the race, the racing scenes in the film are some of the most intense, realistic depictions of the sport in recent memory. They’re enthralling, engaging, and though they make up about 45 minutes of the film altogether, it doesn’t feel like it whatsoever. James Mangold does such a good job with these scenes that I think I’d honestly watch a real-time version of the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans if he was the one directing it. The soundtrack also perfectly captures the 1960s era of the film without getting too cliche (no Fortunate Son or Sympathy for the Devil here.) And though it’s nothing to write home about, the score never gets in the way of what’s happening on-screen or overplays any of the big moments.
At the end of the day, Ford v Ferrari is one of the best films of the year top to bottom. Save for a few rough performances and a plot that takes a smidge too long to really get going, I expect this one to be a major contender come awards’ season.
Ford v Ferrari is in theaters now.