Sports movies come in a multitude of varieties covering a vast array of sports, but one constant between them is the intention that viewers root for “the good guys” to win in the end. Sure, there are a handful of brilliant examples that create the impossible and leave audiences wishing both sides could walk away victorious (Warrior, 2011; Borg vs McEnroe, 2017), but most of the time the protagonist is clear. Ford v Ferrari creates its own minor miracle in that it leaves viewers rooting for a big, greedy corporation to win out over a far smaller, family-owned business. The secret is in capturing both the human faces and human spirit of the two men hoping to lead Ford to victory… and no, neither of them are named Ford.
Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) was a successful racer once upon a time, but after being forced to leave the speed behind for medical reasons he moves into auto sales, modifications, and racer management. Ken Miles (Christian Bale) is one of his part-time drivers who makes ends meet and supports his family as a full-time mechanic at his own garage. The two friends are chugging along hoping for something more around the corner when that something comes calling in the form of Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) and Henry Ford II (a terrifically frustrated Tracy Letts) who’ve decided they want Ford to dominate eternal champion Ferrari at the races. They bring Carroll on board, and Carroll brings Ken, but as friction between them all threatens to end this race before it even begins, a singular drive keeps them moving forward.
James Mangold‘s latest is a revved up, rip-roaring blast that tells an epic tale in intimate terms while also delivering truly exhilarating racing sequences. The drama on the tracks at Daytona, Le Mans, and elsewhere is nerve-wracking and exciting, but the conflicts Carroll and Ken face when they’re not behind the wheel are every bit as compelling. It’s a big movie, but Ford v Ferrari‘s 150+ minute running time never drags and instead holds the attention past the final flag.
The film is a two-hander of sorts as Damon and Bale headline and share the screen through various ups and downs, and while the two play friends with differing attitudes towards life their passion is more complimentary than competitive. Both actors succeed at capturing the humanity in their respective characters, and the ensuing warmth is due in large part to their friendship. Supporting players are equally well suited starting with Letts’ terrific turn as Ford’s thin-skinned but ambitious CEO. He’s an entertaining obstacle and supporter while a more villainous turn arises from Josh Lucas‘ Leo Beebe who puts a face to blind corporate loyalty and the havoc it wreaks. Caitriona Balfe and Noah Jupe are also standouts as Ken’s wife and young son with both balancing sincere support and affection with concern and worry.
That human side of things works beautifully across the board, but the meat of the film is found in the blood, sweat, and motor oil. Mangold and friends deliver some stunning races with minimal CG assists, and the result are sequences that shake and thrill in equal measure. It’s a team effort with additional credit going to cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, composer Marco Beltrami, a trio of editors, and the entire sound department. We feel the momentum, the rush, and the danger at every turn, and while the risk is clearly visible the script does in part in raising the tension as well with one incredibly successful bit of foreshadowing that leaves viewers sweating through the entirety of a race.
Like the best sports films, Mangold’s real-life underdog tale delivers visual intensity while also capturing the drive that leads people to become the best, whether it be for a single game/match/race or for a lifetime. We feel Carroll’s regret and anguish at not being able to race anymore, we feel Ken’s confident desire that he can do better, and we feel the rush even as a bystander watching these men push themselves for something that’s ultimately so intangible. It’s not about a trophy or a name in a record book, it’s about the run, the lap, the race — it’s about the journey.
In a year that’s also gifted audiences with Quentin Tarantino’s 161-minute Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood and Martin Scorsese’s 209-minute The Irishman, it’s incredibly satisfying to see another densely captivating epic from a veteran filmmaker that caters to film lovers rather than bowing to the norm. Ford v Ferrari is among the year’s best films, and in that race at least, we all come out winners.