I hate car racing movies. At least I thought I did until I saw Ford v Ferrari, one of the better films of 2019.
Starring Matt Damon and Christian Bale, the film is more of a narrative featuring Oscar worthy performances by both Damon and Bale, especially Bale, than a racing movie.
The movie, directed just as wonderfully as you would expect it to be by James Mangold (Logan, Walk The Line, Cop Land), tells the story of American car designer Carroll Shelby (Damon) and driver Ken Miles (Bale) who 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.
Knowing next to nothing about that piece of history, I thought that Shelby and Miles were going to end up racing each other at Le Mans, Miles racing for Ferrari.
Yes, at one point, Shelby was a racer. However, his heart got the best of him and under doctor’s orders, he gave up racing competitively and became a full-time Nitroglycerin popping, gum chewing car expert.
The film begins and ends with Shelby’s narration. Opening with a flashback scene of Shelby’s race car bursting into flames he asks “Am I on fire?” The film ends with him asking “Who are you?”
Even though the film clocks in at two and a half hours, the time flies by.
The screenplay is so intriguing, the cinematography so captivating and chemistry between the two actors so perfect, you almost don’t want the film to end.
Henry Ford the 2nd (Tracy Letts) is now in charge of the Ford motor company. And he is not happy. He walks onto the floor of the plant one day and has someone turn off the assembly line. “That is the sound of Ford Motor Company out of business,” he shouts. “In 1899 my grandfather, Henry Ford, ruminated walking home from Edison Illumination. 47 million autos later we’re getting it in the tailpipe from Chevy Impala.” He instructs everyone to “walk home. While walking, ruminate. The man who comes to me with an idea keeps his job. The rest of you losers stay home. You don’t belong at Ford.”
An up and coming Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) has an idea of merging the Ford Motor Company with Ferrari, because Ferrari “spent every lira chasing perfection. He got there. Now he’s broke.” And because the Ford Motor Company wants to get into racing.
Iacocca (along with a number of Ford executives) takes a trip to Italy to meet with Ferrari and is pretty sure his offer of 90%/10% will be a sure thing. When he answers Ferrari, truthfully, that when it comes to racing in Les Mans, he, Ferrari won’t have the final say of who, if anyone, races, Ferrari has a melt down. “Go back to Michigan, back to your big, ugly factory, making big, ugly cars and tell your fat, pig headed boss all of his executives are sons of whores. Tell him he’s no Henry Ford. He’s Henry Ford the 2nd.”
Oops. Now Ford will have to hire Shelby to create the fastest car in the world to win races. And Shelby hires his friend, Miles, to do the racing, during the tests and during major races, including the Daytona 500 and Les Mans.
To create the perfect racing car, Shelby gets $9 million (in 1964). Today, that would be over $73 million.
There’s a catch. He needs to get everything done and have everything ready pronto, because the first race Ford wants to be in is 90 days later.
Miles’ wife (Caitriona Balfe, from TV’s Outlander) isn’t happy that her husband is going back to racing. “You told me you quit,” she screams at him, while speeding along the road. When Miles informs her that the pay is $200 a day, plus expenses, she has a quick change of heart. “Are you shitting me,” she asks.
Of course, there is a villain in the mix, Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), who tries to take credit for everything, but also give the orders, even though Ford himself has made clear to everyone that Shelby has to listen to him only. “Go ahead, go to war,” barks Ford to Shelby.
The first race is lost by Miles. And Ford wants to get rid of Shelby. Shelby decides to bet everything (even the racing company he was part owner of) on Miles in the next race, the Daytona 500.
With the newly designed GT just off a plane from London, Shelby gives Ford a test drive. For some reason, back in the 1960s, LAX allowed Ford to use part of their tarmac and runway as a testing site for their new racing cars. After the test ride, Ford is reduced to tears. “I had no idea. I wish my daddy were alive to see this,” he mumbles to Shelby. He has never seen a faster or better car.
The climax of the film takes place the 1966 Les Mans. Will Miles win? Does his succumb to the demand, the order, that he slow down at the end of the race, since he is clearly in the lead, and cross the finish line with the #2 and #3 drivers who are also driving Ford’s cars, something that Beebee schemes up for a photo-op?
Whether you know how the story ends or not, the film is directed, written, acted and shot in such a way that it doesn’t matter. Everyone, literally, knows that the Titanic sank. However, for 20 years, the film was the highest grossing movie in the world.
Ford v Ferrari Review by Tim Nasson