“Ford v Ferrari” is big-budget movie-making at its best.
Led by Matt Damon as legendary car designer and racer Carroll Shelby and Christian Bale as the abrasive yet ultra-talented driver Ken Miles, “Ford v Ferrari” charges through its two-and-half hour runtime with intensity rivaling the 200 mph speeds of Le Mans’ Mulsanne Straight.
Following the story of how the Ford Motor Co. fell out with Ferrari and subsequently obliterated them at the 24 Hours of Le Mans from 1966 to 1969, “Ford v Ferrari” surprisingly doesn’t focus on the Italians for the majority of the movie. Outside of a few scenes with Ferrari’s boss and founder, Enzo Ferrari, and an intense, albeit brief, battle with Ferrari driver Lorenzo Bandini at the 1966 race, Ferrari doesn’t play a major role in the film.
The film’s opening scene places the audience right in the heat of things. Shelby grips the steering wheel of his Aston Martin DBR1 and stares dead ahead into the darkness, focusing only on the road. He’s doing 150 mph, dirt and grease covering his face, and the audience plunges into darkness with him on his way to victory at the 1959 24 Hours of Le Mans. Damon narrates with a quote from Shelby that becomes a common theme throughout the film.
“There’s a point at 7,000 rpms where everything fades,” Damon narrates. “The machine becomes weightless. It disappears. All that’s left — a body moving through space and time. At 7,000 rpms, that’s where you meet it. That’s where it waits for you.”
“Ford v Ferrari” invests most of its time and effort into the relationship between Shelby and Miles. This relationship is put to the test when Shelby is approached by then-Vice President of Ford Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) and then-head of marketing Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas).
Outraged by Ferrari’s refusal to sell his company to Ford, Henry Ford II, aka “The Deuce” (Tracy Letts), sends his associates to find a car designer and driver that will crush Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a race in which Ferrari had dominated for many years. Iacocca and Beebe enlist the help of Shelby, who vehemently advocates Miles as a driver.
Oddly, the film skips the entire research and development of the Ford GT40, opting instead to show its prototype at an airstrip without referencing how long the development process took.
Beebe serves as the movie’s central antagonist, rather than Ferrari, as he goes to great lengths to stop Miles from having a seat. Miles’ rough yet charismatic personality conflicts with Beebe’s vision of a Ford driver, and the marketing guru goes to great lengths to halt Miles’ Le Mans dreams.
This conflict between Beebe, Miles and Shelby is exaggerated in the film compared to actual events, but makes for great cinema. The conflict produces heartfelt encounters between Shelby and Miles, who go back and forth firing and working with each other multiple times throughout the film.
The constant ups and downs of their relationship also take a toll on Miles’ relationship with his wife, Mollie (Caitriona Balfe), who plays an integral role in the movie as well. Miles’ knowledge of the car and its performance prove indispensable, and Shelby’s vouching for Miles throughout the film makes for a beautiful bromance, which is even topped off with a comical fight scene between the two.
Despite skipping over the entire research and development of the Ford GT40, the film does a fantastic job of showing Miles’ connection with the car. Miles spends many a night wrenching on the legendary car alone and talks to it while driving, urging it to push ahead and stay together. Bale’s depiction of Miles, a role he lost 70 pounds for, is sure to garner Oscar nods, and he is more than deserving. Damon’s role as Shelby is a little less stellar but doesn’t take away from the film’s integrity.
The film ends with a touching tribute to those who made the Ford GT40 possible and fades with the same quote from Shelby that was featured in the film’s opening scene. For racing enthusiasts and casual viewers alike, “Ford v Ferrari” is a non-stop thrill ride with soaring highs and devastating lows.