Ford v Ferrari is solid, middlebrow entertainment. James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma, Logan), a middlebrow director if there ever was one, delivers a center-of-the-road racing film that’s basically the ultimate dad movie. Racing, classic cars, male bonding, the movie almost screams socks, sandals, and a fanny pack. And while it may trudge five minutes past the goodwill mark, this confident, enjoyable movie otherwise runs like a well-oiled machine.
Matt Damon, exuding cool confidence, stars as Carroll Shelby, famed racecar driver turned car designer after a heart condition sidelines his racing career. He’s hired by the Ford Motor Company in the early 1960s to design a racecar in a ridiculously short amount of time and enter it in the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans, an endurance race held in France that, so far, has only had one American winner, Shelby himself. Ford’s CEO, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) is desperate and pissed. His company’s sales are stalling, and after an attempted buyout of Ferrari spearheaded by Lee Iacocca (John Bernthal, who relies on his squinty gruffness only to be consigned to the background for the film’s last half) backfires spectacularly, a rivalry between the two companies is born. Ford wants revenge and they’ll attempt to take it by defeating Ferrari at Le Mans, which the Italian automaker has won five times in a row.
Shelby turns to his frenemy, Ken Miles (a gaunt Christian Bale, who leans hard into a mannered performance) for help. Miles is one of the best racers in the world, but his career has been impeded by his quick temper and tendency to freely speak his mind. With these two talented men working together (and sometimes against each other), victory actually seems possible. But the Ford Motor Company, like any corporation, is run by yes men who think they know better than the professionals. Can Shelby and Miles succeed despite the interference of their corporate overlords?
The racing scenes in Ford v Ferrari are well done, lots of low camera angles to really give you a sense of speed. An early race in the desert stands out because of how realistic it looks, with minimal use of CGI. At a robust two and a half hours, the movie also wisely spreads these racing scenes out. Cars going around a track at high speeds can be exciting but also repetitive after a short while. Most of the racing is saved for the back half of the film, and these scenes are not as bent on overt realism as the one in the desert. These races don’t just use CG to augment a shot, most of the shots are fully rendered CG creations. They don’t look real, exactly, but they look good, sort of look like cool miniatures, a Lego track, but a detailed Lego track with weather conditions and fully rendered automobiles. Sounds weird, but it works. And when mixed with a solid soundtrack (by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders) and the sound effects of the rumbling engines, squealing tires and all the noises we expect from a race, it all comes together nicely for some thrilling and effective race scenes.
The rest of the movie splits its time between Shelby and Miles’ strained friendship, the stress of building a competitive racecar, the now legendary GT40 (ask your dad about it), and trying to win the grueling race. What makes the movie a little more interesting is how much if it is about the two trying to work under the thumb of a corporate giant. With the names Ford and Ferrari prominently in the title and all of their intellectual properties and logos featured in the film, you would expect the companies and their CEOs to be treated with kid gloves. You can’t make a movie like this without their sponsorship, after all. Surprisingly, that’s not the case. Neither of the corporate bigwigs of Ford or Ferrari are portrayed flatteringly here. And much of the drama stems from Colby learning to stand up to these meddling bigwigs and outthink them even when they, ostensibly, have the same goal in mind. Calling this move brave might be an overstatement, but it’s a compelling choice made by writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, especially as massive corporate sponsorships and media conglomerates become more and more of the norm.
And if nothing else, at least the movie looks gorgeous. Whether shedding bright, golden light over the entire screen or dimly lighting it with fading embers from the many sunset scenes, the sun is almost a secondary character for most of the film, and it’s all captured beautifully by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael. The visuals are also accented with an abundance of period details that bring the past appropriately to life. Some of it’s more obvious than others. The now-classic cars are obvious, but the gleaming factories, corporate buildings with classic logos, and the many extras milling about in the background all in period clothing are not. This is an impressive production.
True, Ford v Ferrari may be more of a surface pleasure. But, what a surface it is. And, really, there is something under its hood. So while it may go a little longer than strictly necessary, while the pacing may be a little slacker than need be, it’s a jovial, relaxing, sometimes exciting movie that you can luxuriate in. Take your dad to see it. He’ll love it.