Ford v Ferrari (aka, Le Mans ’66 in the UK, etc.) stars Academy Award®-winners Matt Damon and Christian Bale in the incredible true story of charismatic racing champion-cum-automotive designer, Carroll Shelby, and irascible mechanic-cum-racing legend, Ken Miles. Written by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller, the film was directed by James Mangold and produced alongside Peter Chernin and Jenno Topping. The supporting cast includes Caitríona Balfe as Miles’ strong and supportive wife, Mollie, and Noah Jupe as his adoring son, Peter. Ray McKinnon plays Shelby’s staunch engineering lieutenant, Phil Remington, while Remo Girone gives a peppery performance as rival racecar maker Enzo Ferrari. As Henry Ford II, Tracy Letts leads the big corporate baddies at Ford Motor Company with henchmen Josh Lucas and Jon Bernthal. Special shoutout to JJ Feild for his brief but dashing appearance as Ford engineer Roy Lunn.
After Shelby (Damon) wins the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1959, hypertension ends his career as an international racing star. Devastated but undeterred, he founds Shelby American in 1962 to manufacture and market modified vehicles and high-performance parts to individual consumers. A year later, he takes up the gauntlet thrown down by Ford’s Vice President, Lee Iacocca, to build the best racecar in the world—a challenge motivated by the company’s disastrous bid for the nearly bankrupt Ferrari brand, which leads the godfather of Italian sports cars and racing vehicles to form a more acceptable merger with Fiat. Shelby’s longtime friend Ken Miles (Bale) joins the team at Shelby American when tax evasion leads to trouble with the IRS. Together, they work to modify the GT prototype designed by Lunn and other members of Ford’s special assignment racing program.
When Henry Ford II’s mandate to replace Miles in the 1964 Le Mans leads to another win for Ferrari, Shelby stakes his company to reinstate him as head driver for the 1966 race. On the big day, several world records and some questionable antics place all three Fords in the lead, causing the company’s Senior Vice President, Leo Beebe (Lucas), to demand that Miles slow down for the other two racecars for a Ford photo finish. Unfortunately, Miles’ decision costs him more than his pride.
It comes as something of a relief that Ford v Ferrari has primarily been shot in cheerful pastels rather than the drab sepia hues favored by British filmmakers and common to period films on both sides of the Atlantic (Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma and Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man are good examples of the trend in America). Brisk pacing, rhythm, and dialogue sustain the film’s energy throughout its 152 minutes, making you wish that American screenwriters were as witty as the Butterworth brothers. While another actor could’ve played Shelby with as much competence as Damon brings to the role, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Bale pulling off Miles’ nuances with a chip-on-the-shoulder as pronounced as the actor’s cheekbones.
Among other thematic elements—like the importance of family, friendship, and loyalty—Ford v Ferrari explores the idea that victory means more than winning against others. It’s a combination of self-mastery and the willingness to sacrifice ego to achieve a common outcome. At the end of the race, it’s not so much Ford v Ferrari as it is Ford v Ford or even Miles v Miles. However, the moral of the story is somewhat diminished by the fact that teamwork is proposed by the self-important Beebe, while Shelby and Miles’ friendship is put to the test as a result of following the Senior Vice President’s petty rules. This makes you wish that the film had said more about the character of the rule makers, as well as the objective value of the goal(s) in question, while the ending leaves you wondering if playing by certain people’s rules is truly a matter of winning against your ego or simply of losing your self-respect. Someone has to make the rules, but why does American cinema portray it as the guy with the fastest car or the girl with the coolest sunglasses? Is that art imitating life or dictating it? Is that what we want America to represent? After all, a nation founded on philosophy, as Margaret Thatcher maintained, is only as strong as its principles. Nevertheless, the filmmakers should be lauded for trying to stick to the real story instead of romanticizing the details to end on an all-American high. If you can get past the finish, Ford v Ferrari is a 4-star ride.
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