The title of Ford v Ferrari is a bit of a misnomer. As much as the brand recognition of two major automotive companies will probably get dad butts into theater seats, this isn’t really a story about the 1960s competition between Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) and Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone). Sure, the inciting incident of this tale is Ferrari’s refusal to allow Ford to buy his company, setting off a dick-measuring contest where Ford becomes determined to beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race, but Ferrari is practically a ghost for the majority of the film’s two-and-a-half hours, a specter of abstract achievement for characters in America to rise to and overcome.
Instead, Ford v Ferrari is focused almost exclusively on the exploits of automotive designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and race car driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale), enlisted by the Ford Motor Company to develop, build, and drive a car that can beat a Ferrari in the ultimate endurance race. The big problem is that nobody seems to be willing to let go of their egos long enough to focus on the singular goal of winning. Damon plays Shelby as the closest thing the story has to a peacemaker, brokering Miles’ advice for engineering the car with Ford executives’ desire to retain control over a race they don’t entirely understand. Bale threatens to run away with the movie in Miles’ cantankerous shoes, conveying a genius ingenuity that is only hampered by the people who stand in his way, yet not without a soft, caring spot for his wife (Caitriona Balfe) and son (Noah Jupe).
On the other side of the executive divide, Jon Bernthal is present as Ford vice president Lee Iacocca, but the true source of antagonism arises from executive Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), whose posturing and bootlicking are more important to him than Ford’s actual ambition of beating Ferrari. Meanwhile, Tracy Letts’ Ford II self-seriously dithers around in the background, though it’s obvious from the start that the man is more concerned with immediate sycophantic boosts to his ego than staying focused on the long-term goal of winning at Le Mans.
It’s this conflict that defines the film’s first two hours, as Shelby and Miles try to make the best car possible, with Miles putting in the legwork to test drive and develop incremental improvements, and Beebe attempts to rob Miles of his glory out of spite and a desire to self-aggrandize. It’s a pervading test of wills that is by turns dramatically compelling, frustrating in its egocentrism, and shockingly humorous, if perhaps a bit too drawn out for the purposes of historical accuracy. It’s an entirely functional film, a well-oiled machine of drama, raising stakes, and character growth, all centered around the singular theme of individual genius against corporate bureaucracy. Director James Mangold certainly remembers to have fun with the material, but you don’t willingly make a movie about the internal bickering of a corporation without having reverence for the actual history, and there are times when the constant back-and-forth starts to feel redundant for the sake of completeness.
But then, just as the film threatens to overstay its welcome, the third act kicks in with some amazing racing footage and an honest-to-goodness sense of visceral tension. It almost feels as though it has been imported in from a different movie, for while the battle of wills within Ford remains the focus of every character’s arc, the sense of speed lends Ford v Ferrari a pace and energy that were lacking in the prior two hours. It makes for an exhausting experience by the time the credits roll, perhaps with one epilogue too many, but it’s also what you’re paying to see in a movie advertising itself on its racing.
Ford v Ferrari has all the indicators of being a passion project, from its indulgent and comprehensive dissection of the history it depicts, to the painstaking recreation of one of the most famous racing achievements ever. It’s fabulously directed, charmingly written, and compellingly acted, particularly by Bale, but it’s also a long movie about men arguing until it remembers that the cars are the real spectacle. It’s a lovingly crafted vehicle that expects a bit too much endurance from those who go along for the ride, but when that ride kicks into gear, it’s entirely unforgettable.
Ford v Ferrari opens on November 15, 2019.