One wouldn’t think it at first, but a key ingredient in most of the great leaps of American innovation is ego. Somewhere in the minds of the Wright brothers was the thought of holding their heads up with pride at being the men who invented human air travel. The space race with Russia could easily be boiled-down to an expensive foot race with the Soviets to see who could bop around on the moon first. Lord knows how many pats on the back Steve Jobs awarded himself by revolutionizing home computing. Pride, especially from men, has fueled America’s accomplishments as much as the skills of engineering or the dignity in politics. And if anything is truly fused to the macho posturing and accomplishment of American males, it is cars. Dudes speak in car talk before they speak any other non-English language, they put money into their cars before their own savings accounts and make friends (or enemies) based on their cars. The roar of a motor speaks more to most men than any piece of Shakespeare, while the measure of a man can be gauged by the mileage he makes under 60 seconds. Dudes used to beat their chests in dominance, now they just rev their engines.
Ford v Ferrari can be boiled down to nothing more than a schoolyard scuffle on a monumental scale. Ford is the home-grown, blue-collar jock beloved by mom and pop as the good ol’ boy. Ferrari is the new kid at school, eternally cool and the apple of every student’s eye. Ford sees Ferrari and immediately wants Ferrari to be in his inner circle. Ferrari, in an act of distinguished pomp, says no and walks away. Ford, seething in a jealous rage, wants Ferrari’s cool and looks to take it back by humiliating him. How? A race? A game of chicken? Vandalism? One way or another, it’s going to involve cars. How else do men communicate without talking?
It’s 1963 and Ford Vice President Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) has a radical idea to make the fledgling Ford cars cool again: just buy the cooler car company, Ferrari. Unfortunately ol’ Enzo is not easily swayed by American salesmanship and doesn’t take the deal, further furrowing the brow of cantankerous curmudgeon Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts). Burned and envious of Ferrari’s stature, the son of the automotive innovator makes a bold proclamation: Ford is going to beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race, whose cars have won the race for five years running. To do that, Iacocca takes a gamble on a dynamic duo: former Le Mans champ Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) designing the car driven by hot-headed Brit Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Shelby has Ford and his executive Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) breathing down his neck to not only win, but win in classy fashion. Miles, who is anything but classy, wants to be the ultimate speed demon and will sacrifice his own safety to pull it off.
This is not the first time director James Mangold has offered cinematic weight to the pride of men (Cop Land, Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma, Logan). With Ford v Ferrari, Mangold has brought a new sense of style and finesse to his filmmaking. Even though he and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (Nebraska, Downsizing) have to keep up with some of the fastest cars built for the 1960s, there’s a warm crispness to every shot of the film. They also mercifully avoid the Michael Bay-curse of fetishizing cars, instead treating them with the dignity awarded to science projects and computers. There are plenty of glory shots in the warm sunshine and the cold dark of night, but Ford v Ferrari highlights the struggle and methodology to crafting a truly fast car. And then when the movie gets behind the wheel, the sound design and editing is so loud and clear that it shakes the seats of whatever theater it’s playing in. It’s not just blaring noise, it’s a flowing rumble that acts as the movie’s own form of tension.
On top of being Mangold’s best movie in technical terms, Ford v Ferrari has a thoroughly interesting story. On the one hand, it’s a fascinating look at the pettiness afforded to multi-million dollar corporations. The herculean feat of designing one of the fastest cars ever made was nothing more than a dick-measuring contest between Ford and Ferrari. The blatant shots each company took at each other borders on farcical. On the other hand, Ford v Ferrari is a solid character character study on a man’s limits. Despite the double-bill of Shelby and Miles, it’s mostly Miles’s story. Though Shelby has a decent arc of trying to recapture lost glory, Miles is a much more interesting character given how his skill and arrogance barely balance each other out. As hard as he tries to keep himself grounded as a family man, it’s absorbing to see Miles constantly test himself and his limits. Ford v Ferrari balances both the good and bad sides of the pride of men.
It was wise of Mangold to award the dueling stories with a top-tier cast. Again, despite the double-bill of Damon and Bale, this is Bale’s movie all the way. Free of any physical transformation, Bale is looser and fresher than he’s been in a long time. His take on Miles oozes charisma, and he looks like a natural speeder behind the wheel, but it’s when he’s home with his wife and son that he shows humanity and vulnerability. When Miles tries to meet Shelby halfway on being a company man, Bale shows how that slight chink in Miles’s armor leaves heavy damage to his soul. Damon is running on his movie-star charisma, reveling in Shelby’s smooth-talking schmoozing with the Ford big wigs. He and Bale have killer charisma together, equal parts friends and bickering brothers trying to have their own hands in history. Bernthal in particular has a fresh performance here, with his own silver-tongue and sharp-dressed swagger so effective it briefly turns the movie into an episode of Mad Men. Lucas has a similar presence, though he’s more like the sniveling upstart Pete Campbell than Bernthal’s Don Draper. Letts’s stern, grumpy demeanor is the comedic highlight of the movie, especially when he finally gets in his bankrolled race car and leaves him on the verge of tears. The biggest surprise of the movie is Caitriona Balfe (Outlander) giving her own charisma and heart to Miles’s wife, Mollie. She not only understands the drive that pushed Ken, but admirably encourages it.
Much like the last big movie to tackle historic moments in racing (Ron Howard’s Rush in 2013), Ford v Ferrari expertly captures the rumbling feel of being behind the wheel of the fastest cars made, along with the drive of the men who actually sat in the driver’s seat. It’s more fierce and fun than the typical historical award-season drama thanks to a spry cast and some sharp filmmaking. Mangold elevates himself to the level of a craftsmen, taking what could’ve been nothing more than a throwback car commercial into a heartfelt character study. Its 152-minute runtime moves like lightning, balancing cool and care. For all the negatives Mangold’s story puts on the pride of man, he should be holding his head high with something this good.