In a sense the title of James Mangold’s film is oddly reflective of its quality as well as its subject. “Ford v Ferrari” has the spit and polish of a top-of-the-line sports car from a technical perspective, but in dramatic terms it’s more like a conventional model that’s just rolled off an assembly line.
The background is the competition that erupted between Italian luxury sports car manufacturer Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone, appropriately gruff) and American auto titan Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts, channeling the American character actor Edward Andrews in full tyrannical mode) in 1963, when Ferrari, pressed by financial difficulties, spurned a purchase offer from Ford and his up-and-coming VP Lee Iacocca (John Bernthal, bland) and entered a merger with Fiat, insulting Ford in the process. Furious, the American determined to undertake a crash program to create a car that would win the French Le Mans, humiliating Ferrari, whose hand-crafted beauties seemed invincible. The result would eventually be the Ford GT40.
But realizing Ford’s obsession was a difficult road. Iacocca hired Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), the owner of innovative Shelby Automobiles and himself a former driver who had won Le Mans in 1959 in an Aston Marti but been forced to retire because of heart trouble, to head the effort. Shelby put his team to work and selected Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a Brit who was an old friend but a hothead, as his preferred driver, but Ford and his minions saw Miles as not having an image suitable to the company, and initially resisted using him—until his skill on the track proved indispensable to the project.
That’s the overarching trajectory of the plot, at least as told (with some license) here, but the emphasis is actually on the volatile friendship between the more practical, accommodating Shelby and the perfectionist, rebellious Miles. Damon and Bale play these characters to the hilt, with the former giving Carroll a deep-southern-drawl and let’s-get-along manner that conceal a spine of steel, and the latter endowing Ken with a spiky, take-no-prisoners air that doesn’t even subside in his relations with his steely wife Mollie (Caitrona Balfe) and adoring son Peter (Noah Jupe). The combination of occasional confrontation—even roughhousing—and mutual admiration that ensures they’ll ultimately have each other’s back that the actors bring to their scenes together is satisfying enough, even if it often seems dramatically contrived.
The supporting cast—apart from Letts, who seems to be having a high time, is less impressive. While Bernthal is merely forgettable, Josh Lucas is positively irritating as Leo Beebe, the villain of the piece, who encourages his boss Ford to undercut Shelby and Miles at every turn, including at the end of the final race, when Miles is effectively robbed of the triumph he’s earned to score PR points. (That’s Lucas’ job, of course, but he’s too much of a buttoned-down milquetoast to make you want to boo him.) Ray McKinnon does a nice job as the head of Shelby’s engineering staff and pit crew.
For many, of course, the raison d’être of the movie will be the racing sequences, and the crafts team pulls them off without being able to give them the excitement and sense of imminent danger they would ideally have. (Knowing how things wind up in historical terms and how them must in dramatic ones doesn’t help.) Still, the action is well captured by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, and editors Michael McCusker and Andrew Buckland handle things spiritedly, even if at two-and-a-half hours the movie seems to be aiming for an epic feel it never earns. The visual effects supervised by Olivier Dumont, which clearly play a big role here, are fine if not always completely convincing, and the musical score by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders does its job in pumping up the action.
What we’re left with is a David vs. Goliath—or more accurately Goliath vs. Goliath—story that in the end comes down to a tale of personal friendship that Mangold handles competently but unimaginatively. When Gerald Ford assumed the presidency after Richard Nixon’s resignation, he memorably said that he was “a Ford, not a Lincoln,” referring to Ford’s luxury car. Mangold’s movie can be described as a cinematic Ford—and not a GT40—rather than a Ferrari.
But at least it’s not—to cite another of Henry Ford II’s projects—an Edsel.