by Noemi Arellano-Summer
photo courtesy of IndieWire
In the first few minutes of “Ford v. Ferrari,” Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), driving a race car at 1959 Le Mans, is set on fire. That was the moment I knew this film was going to be great.
Directed by James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma, also starring Bale), “Ford v. Ferrari” concerns Henry Ford, Enzo Ferrari, one great car designer and one fast racer. In 1963, the Ford motorcar company is experiencing a downturn in sales. Their vice president, Lee Iococca (Jon Bernthal), suggests they think more like Ferrari. Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) declares that they will beat Ferrari at the French car race 24 Hours of Le Mans, which Ferrari has dominated for the past several years. Iacocca brings in designer Carroll Shelby, who in turn brings in racer Ken Miles (Christian Bale), and together they work to design a car to beat Ferrari at the 1966 Le Mans.
This film is built on high energy. A touch overlong, it lingers on both the 24-hour Daytona Beach, Florida race and Le Mans, which takes up its last third. Like any film about a high-energy topic, “Ford v. Ferrari” glamorizes racing. However, it also shows racing’s multitude of dangers, with the opening scene only serving as an example.
Shelby is the ‘people person’ to Miles’ ‘difficult,’ and Damon and Bale have an easy chemistry that fits their growing friendship. Mollie, Miles’ wife (Catriona Balfe), wavers back and forth between the supportive wife and the woman who just wishes her husband was home more. The screenwriters did balance her character realistically, and she and Bale have a comfortable relationship fitting a couple with a 15-year-old son, Peter (Noah Jupe). Jupe is a standout for a film dominated by powerful men, but his performance allowed the other characters to breathe and focus on being human.
The film overall has a high quality gleam, fitting for a picture centered around fancy cars. The cinematography is well done, with certain elements enlivening the film, especially as Le Mans gets into the halfway mark and beyond. It takes skill to show the highlights of a 24-hour race as a section of a feature film. For example, the camera lingers throughout on Shelby’s antics, while Miles is out driving. It’s a nice visual contrast that further differentiates their characters.
From what I’ve read, the film is fairly accurate, with changes for character and narrative arcs. Ford’s executive team doesn’t trust Miles to represent their company, given his tendency to swear, get angry, and throw equipment. Miles feels similarly, and this changes a few elements, though nothing major in terms of the film’s plot.
“Ford v. Ferrari” is an upbeat film about a great car race, and two rival manufacturers. However, it’s also about the quietly powerful friendship between two men, both legends in their own ways. Although all aspects of the film are well done, the moments when it’s simply Miles and Shelby building the car with Shelby’s team, Mollie and Peter in the background, are when this film shows its best side. It’s both an accurate historical piece, and the story of good friends, doing what they both loved.