Most racing movies are about rivals, but not so “Ford v Ferrari,” which, despite its competition-oriented title, is actually the story of two friends, Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles (played by Matt Damon and Christian Bale), who partnered with the Ford Motor Co. to beat Italian sportscar designer Enzo Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Shelby had bested Ferrari once before, winning Le Mans in 1959 behind the wheel of an Aston Martin, but was benched soon after on account of a bum ticker, so he turned to his best driver to develop and commandeer the car that would do the feat. Miles was more of a wild card, a British tank commander who’d survived World War II but went on to become a daredevil racer, pushing his cars to the limit on the track. Miles once quipped, “I’d rather die in a racing car than get eaten up by cancer.”
Before Miles met his unnatural end, he and Shelby made history. Watching Bale and Damon channel those two speed freaks in all of their surly, testosterone-spitting glory is a reminder of how much fun it was to watch Bale play a similar character opposite Mark Wahlberg in “The Fighter.” The best sports movies aren’t so much about the sport as they are the personalities, and these two go big with their performances — Damon in a 10-gallon hat, sounding like Tommy Lee Jones, and Bale all gangly and slump-shouldered, playing the man with nothing to lose — as their characters face greater obstacles back home than they do on the famous French course.
If that sounds like a hoot, then what “Walk the Line” director James Mangold has done with “Ford v Ferrari” will wow you, balancing the burnt-rubber thrill of the sport with scenes in which the two men butt heads with their corporate overlords about how to get the job done. But that description also reveals what’s wrong with this movie, in which Ferrari doesn’t feature nearly enough, and the main conflict seems to be between the dynamic racing duo and the American moneybags who hired them.
In the end, Mangold and his three screenwriters — Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller — have made a movie about how Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) set out to buy a racing title, and then nearly sabotaged it by getting his marketing department involved. Frankly, that’s thinking like a studio filmmaker and not a great storyteller, since such debacles happen all the time in showbiz but hardly matter to the folks at home: The suits get involved and ruin the picture, or else drop a fortune on the Oscar campaign, spending their way to a statue that should have gone to someone more deserving.
Both companies, Ford and Ferrari, are hurting when the movie opens. The American brand is having trouble attracting young buyers. Enter the Mustang — a beautiful set of wheels that Miles doesn’t take seriously — and a bold plan to buy out the Italian sportscar manufacturer. But Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) doesn’t go for it, upsetting Henry Ford II (the assembly-line genius’ insecure grandson) with harsh words about how he does business (the Italian cars are made by hand, and sit in a class of their own). Now his pride’s on the line, and Ford, who was threatening to shut down his factory in his introductory scene, is willing to spend whatever it takes to break Ferrari’s winning streak at Le Mans.
One doesn’t have to be a racing aficionado to know where this David-v.-Goliath story is headed — except, in this equation, isn’t Ford playing both roles? The company is by far the behemoth in this equation, but is also granted underdog status because it’s never built a car that could best a Ferrari. The first two years were a bust (one in conveniently compressed movie time), and yet, thanks to Shelby and Miles’ efforts, the car manufacturer finally has something to show for it: the GT40 Mark I, which is fast enough to set speed records, even though it didn’t win the race.
The script makes it sound like those know-nothing Ford bureaucrats — led by petty VP Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas, looking mal-coiffed and knickers-twisted), who been given the reins of the racing program — were against sending the hot-tempered Miles to Le Mans, and maybe they were, but there’s a little too much creative license at play in the version of history the movie presents. Miles did go to Le Mans in 1965, where he lost to Ferrari, and it wasn’t until 1966 that the team started to win.
Although Mangold re-creates stretches of Shelby’s 1959 Le Mans victory and Miles winning a non-Ford-sponsored race at Willow Springs to whet audience’s appetites early on, the only thing louder than the engines were the snores at the film’s Telluride premiere. Maybe it was all the formula family drama with Miles’ wife Mollie (Caitrona Balfe) and son Peter (Noah Jupe) that bored those overheard napping. In any case, they seemed to sit up for the final stretch, when Mangold’s filmmaking most impresses.
Still, there’s something missing from a glossy big-screen rally that we get from the real thing, where the possibility that someone could crash and burn at any time supplies a kind of morbid tension to the sport. Compare it with classic racing movies — James Garner and Steve McQueen reportedly did their own driving in “Grand Prix” (1966) and “Le Mans” (1970), respectively, as did Tom Cruise 20 years later on “Days of Thunder” — and “Ford v Ferrari” looks like Pixar’s “Cars” or the Wachowskis’ “Speed Racer,” despite the fact no CGI was used during these scenes.
That brings the attention back to the acting, which is where the movie excels. Damon’s role may not be as showy, but he gets most of the meaty confrontations, including one in which he locks Beebe in his office and takes Ford for a breakneck ride. Bale has shed the weight he gained to play Dick Cheney in “Vice,” working with the fact that some scenes call for him to use his whole body, at which point there’s a clownishness to his movements, while others play out across a face half-hidden by helmet and sunglasses, the embodiment of focus.
The real Miles sounded like David Niven and spoke with a polite, distinguished British accent, but that’s gotta go for his interpretation of the character to work. Bale sees Miles as a hothead, and the scene where he tosses a wrench at Shelby is a keeper, topped only by the fight that breaks out between them across the street from his house. The movie ends on that same corner, energetic but overlong at two and a half hours, and yet, we’ve traveled the distance with this pair during that time. The race doesn’t go entirely as you might expect, and in a melancholy twist, earlier this year, Ford terminated its factory Le Mans GT program, launched on the 50th anniversary to the events shown here.