A barnburner of a motion picture that mainlines heart-in-mouth excitement and tug-at-the-heart emotion, “Ford v Ferrari” is made the way Hollywood used to make them, a glorious throwback that combines a smart modern sensibility with the best of traditional storytelling.
As can be guessed by the title, this is a film about fast cars and the men who want to make them faster. But “Ford v Ferrari” has virtues well beyond immersive racing footage, offering humor, passion, strong personalities and stronger conflicts plus sterling acting by stars Matt Damon and Christian Bale and a tip-top supporting cast.
The story is based on a real-life quest that united a trio of unlikely, often antagonistic allies — corporate titan Henry Ford II, former driver and legendary car designer Carroll Shelby and expert but irascible racer Ken Miles — in what seemed an impossible quest: taking one of the world’s great driving titles, Le Mans’ Grand Prix of Endurance, away from an arrogant Ferrari racing team that held everyone else, but especially Ford, in withering contempt.
Orchestrating the elements in a career-defining effort is director James Mangold, a gifted filmmaker whose special skill is his instinct for creating involving drama without pushing too hard. Mangold has made any number of successful films, including “Walk the Line,” “Logan” and “3:10 to Yuma,” all testimony to a belief in character-driven stories in which drama and action classically reinforce each other.
Working here from a shrewd and persuasive script by Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller, Mangold has put together a thrilling film that understands the value of setting the stage, that gives its plot and characters room to breathe.
Introduced first, and in a most dramatic way, is Shelby (Damon), met during his 1959 victory at Le Mans’ 24-hour auto racing marathon, screaming at a pit stop after his suit is momentarily covered in flames, “Am I on goddamn fire? Then fill the tank.”
But the elation of Shelby’s triumph is short-lived, as the driver is told he has a heart condition that dooms his racing career. He reinvents himself as a car designer who, working with chief engineer Phil Remington (a fine Ray McKinnon), sells his Shelby Cobras out of a warehouse space in Venice.
On screen next, also in the Los Angeles area, is Ken Miles (Bale), who runs a sports car garage and seems to specialize in telling irate customers they don’t know how to drive.
Born in England, with the Birmingham accent to prove it, Miles is, by his own admission, “not what you’d call a people person.” Difficult, incendiary, uncompromisingly candid, he is also something of a car whisperer, a driving purist who knows instinctively where the problems with test cars are and is in a constant, Zen-like quest for “the perfect lap.”
Also front and center almost immediately are Peter Miles (Noah Jupe), the young son the racer is very close to, and — taking pride of place as the film’s secret weapon — Miles’ wife, Mollie.
Dynamically played by Irish-born Caitriona Balfe (TV’s “Outlander”), Mollie is unquestionably Ken’s equal, a match for him in Bogart-Bacall type banter and, as it unexpectedly turns out, behind the wheel. To place a convincingly strong and formidable woman in this very male universe was one of “Ford v Ferrari’s” best ideas, and the film has the good sense to return to the couple again and again.
“Ford v Ferrari’s” key relationship, however, is between Shelby and Miles, who turns out to be the designer’s driver of choice. In some ways as close as brothers, and sharing a fierce and unflappable dedication to going fast, faster, fastest, these men are also both go-their-own-way iconoclasts, so the relationship between them is inevitably confrontational if not incendiary.
Sharing the screen for the first time, Damon and Bale understand and enhance this empathy with complementary and beautifully nuanced performances.
Though he wears a black Stetson every chance he gets, Damon’s quietly competitive Shelby is often the charismatic conciliator, using his relaxed Texas accent to soften the hard edges of the man he affectionately calls “Bulldog.”
As for Bale — who lost 70 pounds from his top weight as Dick Cheney in “Vice” to transition to this part — his Ken Miles, with the angular look and piercing stare of a bird of prey, is yet another landmark in the actor’s ability to lose himself beyond our recognition in challenging roles.
The last piece of the dramatic picture is Henry Ford II, familiarly known as “the Deuce,” the sullen, aggrieved automotive tyrant (beautifully played by Tracy Letts ) who is driven in the mid-1960s to sell as many cars to as many people as possible.
Encouraged by Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) to win glamorous European Grand Prix races to increase U.S. sales, Ford tries to buy Ferrari, but the aristocratic Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) gets the better of him.
Furious, the Deuce announces in no uncertain terms, “I don’t care what it costs, we’re going to build a race car and bury Enzo Ferrari 100 feet deep under the finish line at Le Mans.” Which leads Iacocca to enlist Shelby, who in turns calls on Miles — and the race, so to speak, is on.
Not, of course, that anything is remotely easy. Miles and Shelby have issues with each other, and both will have to contend with the machinations of Ford’s icily conformist executive Leo Beebe (an impeccably corporate Josh Lucas.)
Making all this as involving as possible is superb moviemaking craft, with outstanding work from Mangold’s longtime cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, production designer François Audouy, editors Michael McCusker and Andrew Buckland, and everyone else up and down the line.
A special word has to be said about the racing sequences, in which dozens of cars either borrowed or specially built make sure we see and hear exactly what it feels like to go 200 bone-crunching miles per hour in the shakiest of metal hulls.
Finally, however, this is not a story about cars, or even about racing, but about character, conflict and fate. If proof be needed, look closely at the thank yous in the final credits and you will see the name of the late Alexander Mackendrick.
One of the great figures of moviemaking, the director of such rich, emotional films as “The Man in the White Suit,” “The Ladykillers” and “Sweet Smell of Success,” Mackendrick was Mangold’s teacher and mentor at CalArts. With “Ford v Ferrari,” Mangold has surely made a film that would make the old man proud.
Running time: 2 hours, 32 minutes
Playing: In general release