There are true-story movies that are bland, mildly entertaining, and devoid of any striking characteristics beyond maybe a “transformative” lead performance. Then there are movies like Ford v Ferrari. Director James Mangold’s chronicle of Ford’s bid to build a car worthy of beating Ferrari at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans race is largely formulaic and predictable to be sure, but it’s executed so sharply, with such artistic confidence and mastery, that it rises above its familiar structure to become a rousing, wildly compelling, and genuinely great racing movie that harkens back to the good old days when major movie studios spent serious money on stories about human beings.
Matt Damon plays Carroll Shelby, a former race car driver and 1959 24 Hours of Le Mans winner with a bit of Texas swagger. After being sidelined from his career due to a heart condition, he’s approached by Ford Motor Company with an idea: Ford is looking to sell more cars to now-driving-age baby boomers by competing against Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race, and they hope their victory will make their cars edgy enough for young consumers. Shelby is tasked with helping build and race the new car, but to do so he reaches out to an old friend.
Christian Bale is Ken Miles, an arrogant, self-assured yet extremely talented driver and builder himself with a knack for ignoring orders. Shelby enlists Miles to help build the Ford race car, and after some serious back-and-forth, Miles agrees. Together the two battle meddling Ford executives and Ferrari itself to try and win the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Ford v Ferrari is the kind of movie that plays out pretty much as you’d expect, but the screenplay by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller is impressively economical. Yes, there’s a Concerned Wife character (played solidly by Outlander’s Caitriona Balfe). Yes, there’s a smarmy higher-up getting in the way (Josh Lucas in fine form). Yes, there’s tension between the two polar opposite collaborators (witness the saddest/best fight between Batman and Jason Bourne ever imagined). But this is a film that knows the conventions, and embraces them anyway. Mangold is plenty familiar with tradition having helmed films like Walk the Line (music biopic) and Kate & Leopold (romcom—and an underrated one at that), but instead of trying to upend expectations, he embraces the parts of these movies that make them work while approaching them with an expert level of craft.
Damon and Bale are both phenomenal, and their chemistry bleeds off the screen. Damon’s Texas drawl masks a razor sharp focus and drive, while Bale gives one of the best performances of his career. Miles is arrogant and can be a serious prick, but Bale imbues the character with a pitch perfect cocktail of charm and quiet ambition (and a disarming British accent to boot). You really do root for Miles to succeed, not in spite of his flaws but because of them. That’s a testament to Bale’s work here, and his relationship with Noah Jupe, who plays Miles’ young son, is particularly touching. Tracy Letts, meanwhile, owns the role of Henry Ford II, and the ensemble is stacked with memorable performances from talented actors—Jon Bernthal and Ray McKinnon are swell as allies of Shelby’s.
And the racing scenes. Oh the racing scenes. Mangold has previously shown a great handle on set pieces in films like Logan and Knight and Day (also underrated), but the racing scenes in Ford v Ferrari—and there are a lot of them—are some of the best ever put to screen. The sense of geography in Mangold’s direction is flawless, and the roaring sound of the engines, tires, and speedway by Donald Sylvester is Oscar-worthy. Then Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography really brings it home, as the camera puts you right in the middle of the races in dynamic ways. There are endless exterior shots that highlight the sunrise or sunset, basking Damon, Bale and Co. in a gorgeous blanket of light, but Papamichael’s shot composition and framing underlines each and every character and story beat in an elegant way.
At two hours and thirty-two minutes in length, Ford v Ferrari should feel long, but it doesn’t. Not at all. The film breezes by as Mangold and editors Michael McCusker and Andrew Buckland consistently keep things moving forward, and there’s nary a downbeat or fallow period to be seen in the entirety of its runtime. The score by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders is both propulsive and dynamic, bringing yet another layer of expert craftsmanship to the table.
Indeed, it really is the craft that makes Ford v Ferrari as good as it is. There’s easily a far less successful version of this story that could be made, maybe even with the same screenplay. But Mangold’s talent as a filmmaker lies in honing in on what is most necessary for any scene at any given moment, and telling the story in as sufficient a way as possible. Beyond that, his team of craftspeople deliver expert-level results, and then when you’ve got Matt Damon and Christian Bale up on the screen—two of the best actors working today—you have yourself an insane level of talent. Bad movies can be made with the best intentions (and sometimes even the best collaborators), so credit must be given to Mangold for steering this ship so meticulously.
But Mangold’s also playing for keeps. This isn’t a story that’s meant to be told, make the Oscar rounds, and then fade into oblivion. The determination of spirit behind Shelby and Miles, and the perseverance they displayed in this particular period of their lives, is still inspiring all these years later. And Mangold ensures their story stands the test of time by wrapping it in an airtight, insanely rewatchable package. Indeed, Ford v Ferrari feels destined to become one of those movies you just have to watch if you stumble upon it on cable. It’s both that good and that entertaining.
The irony is not lost that Ford v Ferrari is a nearly $100 million budget drama about human beings that was greenlit and made by 20th Century Fox, a studio that was just bought by Disney and is now destined to reduce its output and potentially refocus its content. Fewer and fewer “movies for adults” are being made these days (for theaters at least), and when they are being made, not all of them are up to snuff. So it’s with great satisfaction and a twinge of melancholy that we greet Ford v Ferrari, one of the best films of the year.
Ford v Ferrari opens in theaters on November 15th.