American car designer Carroll Shelby and driver Ken Miles battle corporate interference, the laws of physics and their own personal demons to build a revolutionary race car for Ford and challenge Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966. (IMDb)
Director: James Mangold
Writers: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller
Stars: Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Caitriona Balfe, Jon Bernthal and Josh Lucas
Let’s get this out of the way right at the start, this movie is called Le Mans ’66 in the UK and some other countries and that is, quite frankly, a bad title. It’s called Ford v Ferrari in the US, and that’s how I’m going to refer to it throughout this review. It’s a much better and more evocative title that doesn’t presume you have any existing knowledge of race cars or the “24 Hours of Le Mans” race. I’m not someone who knows about any of this but I still found a lot to enjoy in Ford v Ferrari.
This movie tells the tale of American automotive designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and fearless British race car driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) who together build a car for the Ford Motor Company that’s designed to end the dominance of Ferrari at the prestigious Le Mans race in France in 1966. It’s a much safer and less challenging film that director James Mangold’s last movie, Logan, but that doesn’t mean it’s not lively and entertaining, and it’s made in a way that keeps it accessible even if you know nothing about fast cars or racing.
A powerhouse performance from Bale
The movie tells the the true story of the lead up to the 1966 race and the team that Ford hired to defeat Ferrari. After Ford attempted to buy Ferrari and was rejected, the executives at the company became set on beating Ferrari at Le Mans. They hired Shelby to build them a car capable of winning the notoriously difficult race, and he brought in Miles to hone its performance and drive the car. Shelby and Miles are both outsiders in the film and they definitely don’t behave like employees of the Ford Motor Company. Miles, in particular, is an abrasive and passionate race car driver who isn’t easily made to follow the company line. Christian Bale’s performance in the role is unsurprisingly outstanding, and he brings a lot of humanity and realism to a character who could easily be defined by his single-minded focus on building a fast car. Ford v Ferrari gives us a well-rounded character here, and we see how he’s not only doing this for his family but how much of a dreamer he is, and how much ambition he has. Bale plays off Damon well, and their fun dynamic is a big part of what makes the film charming and entertaining.
Predictable but still exciting
You’ll be disappointed if you’re expecting Ford v Ferrari to reinvent the wheel, but it’s an undeniably thrilling watch even if it largely plays it safe and is predictable. The camerawork and music, particularly in the racing scenes, contribute to a feeling of suspense and excitement throughout. Mangold’s direction is excellent here, and the film is pacy and action-packed. It may be long at just over two-and-a-half hours, but it doesn’t overstay its welcome because it consistently moves quickly and focuses on its characters and how they overcome the challenges they face. The whole of the final act is devoted to the pivotal race at Le Mans, and if you don’t already know how it turned out, it’s exhilarating to watch and delivers more surprises and twists than you might expect (for what is essentially just an exceptionally long drive around a track). Ford v Ferrari may not do a whole lot that’s shocking or unforeseeable, but it knows the formula that has served underdog sports movies well over the years, and it both follows it closely and in a way that really works.
The risks of the race
Thematically, Ford v Ferrari is a film that’s both about a single-minded drive to succeed and the ways that corporate structures stifle and interfere with individual talent and the ability to progress. Throughout, it’s evident that Ferrari is so good at winning these races because the company trusts its excellent drivers and designers to deliver, while Ford sets itself up to fail or at least struggle by trying to manage every step of the process. There’s no way you watch this film and come away thinking that Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) is presented in a sympathetic or understanding way. In fact, we root for Shelby and Miles to win in spite of Ford, and because we want them to accomplish what seems impossible within the corporate structure, rather than ever supporting them because the film wins the audience over to Ford’s side. Ultimately, though, this is also a film about the negative consequences of having so much desire to win too. The two men are so set on creating the fastest car they can that things become incredibly risky and dangerous, and we see just how bad things can get when so much ego and ambition gets in the way of safety.
You don’t need to be a racing enthusiast to enjoy this charming and entertaining movie that keeps things action-packed and exciting throughout. Christian Bale shines with this leading performance.