More than 50 years after the legendary and controversial 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans race, its story is finally brought to the big screen by James Mangold in Ford v Ferrari.
In 1964, Ford Vice President Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) proposed to CEO Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) that the company should acquire cash-strapped Italian automaker Ferrari in order to boost the company’s credibility on the racing circuit. Iacocca meets with Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) in Italy and is on the verge of a deal until Fiat comes in at the 11th hour and is able to secure a deal with Ferrari that allows him to retain ownership of his racing division, Scuderia Ferrari, but not before giving Iacocca an insulting message to his boss, telling Iacocca that Ford builds “ugly little cars” in “ugly factories” and that Ford is not Henry Ford, but “Henry Ford II”. Ford, angry at the rejection and insult, decides that if you can’t buy them, beat them and greenlights Iacocca to find a team that can build a car good enough to defeat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a race that Ferrari has dominated in recent years..
Iacocca recruits Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), who was the last driver to win the Le Mans without a Ferrari but was forced to retire due to a heart condition. Shelby brings in Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a hot-headed driver and mechanic.
Damon, who stated that one of the reasons why he took this role was to work with Bale, shows great chemistry with Bale. Miles is shown from the get-go that he is very rough around the edges. He will tell you exactly what is on his mind, but he is one of the smartest men in the room when it comes to cars and Shelby is shown to be the one guy who can work with Miles, standing up for him when his car is initially disqualified from a race over a trunk issue and coming up to bat for him again when Ford Senior Vice President Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) tells Shelby that Miles is not “Ford material” behind the wheel. Even after an embarrassing defeat at the 1964 Le Mans, the suits at Ford are not willing to listen to Shelby’s insistence that Miles is the driver for this race. Ultimately, it takes Shelby putting Ford inside the race car and driving around their practice course to fully understand why Miles is the man for this job.
Bale, who tremendously lost 70 pounds in seven months in order to play the slender Miles after portraying the portly Dick Cheney in Vice, perfectly captures the brilliance of the ultimately misunderstood Miles. Miles is who he is, and he isn’t someone who will kiss the rings, which is why there is conflict between the Ford executives that causes Shelby to intervene.
In many ways, Shelby is Mangold and the Ford executives are film producers. Mangold had wanted to bring this script to life for nearly a decade now, but instead, 20th Century Fox pushed back, having him direct more box office-friendly productions such as The Wolverine and Logan before finally giving this film the greenlight. Like Shelby, Mangold knows how to play the game and work with the higher-ups.
The race scenes are exhilarating and give you the feeling that you’re in the car alongside Miles (without the stomach-churning feeling of G-force when the car hits 200 miles per hour) and the editors do a great job maintaining race continuity despite filming the race scenes in multiple locations, but like all good sports movies, the actual sports take the backseat to the character drama. Damon and Bale have great on-screen chemistry, punctuated by the “brawl” the two got into with one another, which was a lighthearted, fun fight that starkly contrasts the typical fight scene you associate with the two actors.
One performance I wasn’t in love with, however, was the portrayal of Henry Ford II. The grandson of Ford founder Henry Ford, “The Deuce” lacks any charisma and instead rules with an iron fist. Our introduction to Ford is him entering a factory and telling assembly line workers to walk home and think of a new innovative idea, and that their job depends on it. Upset with the embarrassing loss at the 1964 Le Mans, Ford won’t even look at Shelby in a meeting afterwards and for the most part, his executives are there to kiss his ass, especially Beebe. Of course, this portrayal echos real-life Lee Iacocca’s statement of Ford, “If a guy is over 25 percent a jerk, he’s in trouble. And Henry was 95 percent,” but it’s hard to imagine that Ford completely lacks any redeeming quality like he is portrayed.
The focus of the film is the relationship between Shelby and Miles and Shelby clashing heads with the Ford executives, but it comes at the sacrifice of the titular focus of Henry Ford II and Enzo Ferrari. The two characters never even share a scene, instead, exchanging barbs behind each other’s backs. Their lack of relationship turns their dynamic more into a plot device than anything else.
Overall, it’s easy to see why Ford v Ferrari had so much hype. Despite the two hour, twenty minute run time, not a single frame is wasted and it beautifully blends the thrill of the racetrack with the behind the scenes development of the Ford GT40.