Director: James Mangold
Writers: Jez Butterworth (written by), John-Henry Butterworth (written by), Jason Keller (written by)
Starring: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Jon Bernthal
Runtime: 152 mins
MPAA Rating: PG-13
To all you automobile enthusiasts, this here is your movie. James Mangold, who most recently directed the gritty fan-favorite superhero film Logan (2017), switches gears to direct the biggest historical automotive drama since Ron Howard’s Rush (2013). Knowing about the top-notch acting talent employed and having heard all the favorable press coming out of its Telluride Film Festival release, I had higher-than-normal expectations.
Starting in 1963, the plot follows the history of the Ford Motor Company as CEO Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), having been insulted by Enzio Ferrari (Remo Girone) while attempting to purchase the flailing Ferrari company before they are instead bought by Fiat, writes a blank check for a racing team to build an automobile that can compete with the Ferrari cars in the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans. Ford hires retired racecar driver Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), famous for winning the 1959 Le Mans race, to oversee the construction. In turn, Shelby employs the temperamental and financially-challenged yet skilled driver and mechanic Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to assist in the design and to ultimately drive the vehicle. From there, you follow this team of men as they overcome numerous challenges of both the engineering and interpersonal variety.
Christian Bale, showing off his latest drastic weight change (I last saw him as the portly Dick Cheney in 2018’s Vice ), is superb as the unrefined British grease-monkey whose passion and determination are really what elevate him above the competition. Bale gives a convincing portrayal of a man so dedicated to his craft and confident in his abilities that he is easily perceived as a bit unhinged; he is never afraid to speak his mind with no tact whatsoever. It is easy to understand how the higher powers within the Ford company appreciate his dexterity and ability to find unconventional solutions but are nervous about a wildcard representing their brand to the public. Matt Damon’s Shelby plays really well off him as the calmer and much more diplomatic team manager of sorts; Miles clearly respects Shelby even when they feud, and Shelby is really the only one who can reach him as a friend and reel him in. Both of these men are much more than skilled laborers as there is emotional depth to both characters. Shelby has a more contemplative approach to life and understands his own mortality as you learn early on in the film about his heart condition that ultimately caused him to retire from racing early. For all his personality flaws, Miles is shown to be a loving husband and father which adds emotional stakes to the dangerous races. I thoroughly enjoyed every time the two of them shared a scene, but it is far too infrequent. You have a strong emotional investment in the sporting action and the outcome of the story which is the sign of well-written and well-portrayed characters.
This film does nothing poorly but its structure is far from innovative. As is typical with Hollywood historical dramas, the movie largely feels like it is driving through highlights from a Wikipedia article, basking in the successes and wallowing in the setbacks and conflicts. Everything feels so simplified and then exaggerated which is oftentimes my biggest issue with dramatizing historical events. The movie clocks in at 152 minutes, and I do not think there is enough meat on its bones to justify that long of a runtime. Despite the length and the plot’s narrative and emotional beats being fairly predictable, you still care about the people portrayed in this story because of a thoughtful script and how skilled the lead performances are; the movie remembers to present the main characters as genuine and relatable individuals, an element which can sometimes be forgotten in historical dramas. That being said, a couple scenes with supporting characters are distractingly cartoonish, and I was particularly bothered by the main child actor’s unconvincing emotional performance in several important scenes. Additionally, the one-dimensional villification of an individual who I am willing to bet had more depth to him in real life is a bit tired and feels as though it is entirely done in order to place our main characters under an extra layer of fabricated dramatic tension.
Every technical element of this film is professional as should be expected for a nearly one-hundred million dollar budget movie. Mangold opts to primarily use short, close shots, both internal and external to the automobiles, along with plenty of perspective shots for the majority of the racing scenes which intensify the pressure a driver faces within a confined machine shooting around a track. The fast-paced editing and humming sound design provide the adrenaline kick that makes those sequences kinetic and exciting. For the entirety of each racing scene, the focus is very much on Ken Miles and his headspace which gives the action sequences a more intimate touch that does not leave you emotionally disconnected. Outside of the racing, there are some very cool shots capturing natural light reflecting off of windows and mirrors, and several scenes take place during dusk with subtle yet colorful lighting from the sunset. The production design is excellent as every costume set, prop, and vehicle feels like it is plucked right out of the 1960s. Retro product logos enhance the authenticity of the era rather than feel like obnoxious product placement. I have no complaints about the visual presentation though I think it could have been a bit more ambitious especially during the racing scenes.
Ford vs. Ferrari is a very likable film that teeters on the brink of Oscar-bait territory, but I think has a sharp enough screenplay to avoid that pejorative. As far as I know, the movie is for the most part factually accurate, and it depicts the historical events in an exciting fashion. If cars are your thing or you are just the average movie-goer who likes great acting, you should really enjoy Ford v. Ferrari.
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