The world of competitive racing often gets unfairly maligned in the United States. Stereotypes surround NASCAR, especially among those who do not like the sport. Preconceived notions of NASCAR fans and culture have been played for laughs across the entertainment landscape, including Will Ferrell’s extremely popular Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Yet despite these ideas, the sport continues to thrive around the globe. Formula One and special racing events like Le Mans have continued to hold international fascinations. Like any sport, the beauty of racing makes an extremely cinematic sport. Director James Mangold (Logan) brings one of the most dramatic races of all-time to life with stunning technical prowess while getting another great performance out of Christian Bale. Ford v Ferrari (or Le Mans ’66 internationally), roars to life as one of the year’s best throwback films.
As the Ford motor company struggles for success in the 1960s, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) issues a challenge to his company. Improve sales or the company will fail. Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) comes up with the idea to make Ford sexy: buy Ferrari. When the deal falls through, Iacocca approaches legendary driver Caroll Shelby (Matt Damon) to begin a racing program hell-bent on defeating Ferrari. After picking his driver, Ken Miles (Christian Bale), and crew (Ray McKinnon, JJ Field, and Jack McMullen), they go to war. As we follow Miles’ turns through the bad and good, we get insight into his family life with son Peter (Noah Jupe) and wife (Caitriona Balfe).
Ford v Ferrari combines good old fashioned practical effects sports dramas with brilliant performances to stand out. Mangold shows off his technician side of his repertoire, expertly bringing together an outrageously good crafts team. From eye-catching cinematography (Phedon Papamichael) and even better editing (Andrew Buckland, Michael McCusker & Dirk Westervelt), everyone’s brilliant work builds on itself. The editing, in particular, weaves together the tension. The team expertly places you inside the car for dramatic moments, but quickly gives you external views to remind of the danger at every turn. The pacing allows the film to breeze by, even when we’re watching the human drama unfold, and this two and half hour film feels much shorter.
The designs by François Audouy not only painstakingly recreates Le Mans, but also the iconic vehicles that flew along its track. While some scenes take place in airplane hangers and runways, Audouy’s touch creates a tactility missing from many films today. Yet the sound design team really deserves the biggest boost, allowing you to track the locations of the vehicles around you while still delivering a chest pumping soundscape. The roar of the energy leaps out of the theater and into your chest. It’s truly a special audio experience.
Mangold balances the craft expertise of Ford v Ferrari with expert performances. Bale steals the heartbeat of the film, quickly enveloping the audience in his charm and lanky charisma. Playing the opposite of Dick Cheney in every conceivable way, the skinny, Brummie accented Bale pumps energy into every scene. He’s extremely active, constantly moving and on edge until he hits the peak RPMs of his vehicles. Even in the car, his running commentary both endears you to his odd behaviors and makes him endlessly entertaining. There’s a layer of monomania that one expects from a Daniel Day-Lewis performance that runs throughout this role, but the lighter moments with his family crack the facade. Bale proves once again that he’s the class of his generation, and should awards bodies come calling, it will be well deserved.
Damon brings a far more subdued performance than his counterpart. While the Texas accent he dons is anything but, his emotional subtly recalls a man whose lifetime in the driver’s seat has left his nerves fried. He pushes himself, and others, to the brink of danger but Damon’s soulful eyes tell a far more complicated story. It’s not a career-defining work, but it’s another piece of a legendary career that I’ll look back on with fondness.
While Bale and Damon carry the film’s largest workload, the rest of the cast gets moments to shine. Letts brilliantly captures the emotion and weight of Henry Ford II, a man who is simultaneously powerful but lives in the shadow of greatness. His own path to greatness parallels Shelby and Miles, and lesser filmmakers would have portrayed him as a buffoon. Instead, you understand the gravitas of Ford, even as he makes questionable decisions. Bernthal and Josh Lucas are good in their roles as Ford’s company men. Mangold captures a smugness in Lucas that’s rarely used to maximum effect. His wide grin and flashy teeth make him an easy character to hate, especially when juxtaposed against the grime and grease-covered Bale, but that’s exactly what makes his turn so affecting.
Balfe gets the short end of the stick, and like Claire Foy in First Man, shows there’s real talent for someone to pull from. As Bale’s wife, she matches his intensity and charisma, which few actors actually can do in this film full of larger than life characters. Unfortunately, she does not get more than a few standout moments, and even then, it falls into caricature territory. The “wife at home” trope seeps into the screenplay and ultimately leaves her with fewer standout moments. Jupe continues to prove he’s one of the best child actors working today. He textures a fairly boring role with hope and love for his father. While the film eventually leaves him on the sideline, Jupe shows real promise.
Ford v Ferrari can easily be seen as cliche or boring. It draws from many of the same beats as your typical sports film, and in some ways bears a striking resemblance to Rocky in race cars. Yet the ways in which Mangold, Bale, and the writing infuse the film with greater purpose cannot be ignored. Mangold may have reinvigorated his career thanks to comic book films like Logan, but his own determination to make something beautiful and special within the studio system cannot be ignored. Framing Ford v Ferrari through the metaphor of a genius working inside of a big corporation is too easy, especially in the wake of the Disney-Fox merger. Yet the fact that it harkens back to the days of the studio system further showcases this as the kind of film we rarely get anymore. In the small emotions and small moments of Ford v Ferrari, Mangold creates a film that earns must-watch status. It’s rare that a movie can so wholly appeal to audiences, but Ford v Ferrari does just that.