James Mangold’s Logan was one of the best films of 2017 for all the ways it played around with genre, broadening our expectations of a comic book movie by bringing in elements of the Western cinematic tradition (which Mangold knows about, from his 3:10 to Yuma remake) and painting a world in which immigrant children would flee persecution from the U.S. government and private industry for the more-accepting land of socialist Canada. That’s actually fairly subversive!
Ford v Ferrari, Mangold’s latest, is far more conservative than that. This is a movie about When Men Were Men, when (white) men who were innovators and mavericks weren’t afraid to get dirty, get messy, get the job done. This was the Greatest Generation, who fought in World War II and then returned home to their wives and their children, who pushed toward victory and had pride in their work and never gave up. Mangold has a lot of earnest admiration and genuine affection for these figures, for American car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and British race car driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) and how they elevated Ford into international racing relevance, and the film earns your esteem for those men, too.
Ford v Ferrari steadily introduces its cast of characters one at a time before bringing them together into conflict. First is Shelby: One of the first American winners of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, an endurance race in France, in which drivers cycle over and over on 8 miles of country roads. After a heart condition puts a stop to his racing career, he pivots into designing and selling cars with trusted right-hand man Phil Remington (Ray McKinnon, of Deadwood!). Then comes Miles, a British race-car driver in his 40s with an adoring wife (Caitriona Balfe, admittedly underserved) and son (Noah Jupe) who struggles to make ends meet running his garage and racing on the side.
And finally there’s the Ford Motor Company, run by Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts). The company is experiencing slumping sales, and two high-up executives spar over how to fix it. Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), Ford’s most-trusted advisor, thinks the key is a clean image and a reliance on American exceptionalism. Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal, cleaning up very nicely in some well-fitted suits), head of marketing, thinks the key is in positioning Ford as not just a reliable car, but a sexy one: “James Bond does not drive a Ford, sir,” he says during a Mad Men-style presentation. What if Ford were to enter the world of international racing, which has for years been dominated by the Italian company Ferrari and its president Enzo (Remo Girone)? Wouldn’t that give them the clout they’re yearning for?
But things don’t go well between Ford and Ferrari, not well at all: The Italian calls Detroit “a big fat factory making ugly little cars” and rejects Ford’s offer. Now that it’s personal, Ford is determined to prove his company’s worth, partnering with Shelby and his company, Shelby American, to design a race car that can compete at the Le Mans level. And Shelby knows only one man knowledgeable enough—and brave enough—to be the driver for the designing, testing, and racing process, continuing a partnership with Miles that is as likely to devolve into gentle mocking as it is in a full-out fistfight.
Ford v Ferrari has a lot of relationships to balance, but what writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller do well is bring a sense of competition to nearly every pairing. Sure, the heads of the auto companies are locked in a hatred-fueled death match for international dominance, but there’s drama to Beebe and Iacocca, to Shelby and Beebe, and in particular to Shelby and Miles, who respect each other but who occupy entirely different spaces in this world. Shelby is the smooth talker, the promiser, the man whose constant cowboy-hat wearing exudes a certain kind of confidence and authenticity. Damon hasn’t been this good in a very, very long time, and he brings a forthrightness to Shelby that makes you a little bit thrilled every time he goes against expectations and does something slightly underhanded. And while some of Bale’s choices flirt with caricature (his amped-up accent, an aggressive underbite, a nearly constant scowl), he and Damon work so well off each other that you’ll believe the pair as men who might not like each other very much but who see the value and the perseverance in each other.
Mangold shoots the racing scenes without much romanticism, relying on first-person POV to put us inside the cars as they zoom along, and the sound design underscores the astonishing power of these machines. You’ll feel the strength of the Ford GT40 more than anything else, in particular during the climactic Le Mans race, and there are some shots that truly underscore the brawn of these vehicles in motion as they rev up on each other and muscle down a straight shot. By focusing on how much care and work went into crafting these cars, Mangold lulls you into a certain expectation of safety, which means that the crashes that do occur are even more phenomenally jolting than you might initially expect. “We’re lighter, we’re faster, and that don’t work, we’re nastier,” Shelby says, and the movie helps you understand the engineering of these vehicles in a way that keeps you invested in the drivers responsible for them.
Nothing about the filmmaking is particularly new or groundbreaking, and if you realize that this project was initially meant to be a biopic about Ferrari directed by Michael Mann, maybe you’ll feel like you lost out on something. That film absolutely would have been astonishing in its own right. But Mangold has such confidence in Ford v Ferrari, the performances so solid and the aesthetics so good that you’ll steadily get drawn in. This is a highly conventional would-be blockbuster but a highly satisfying one, and if you can get past the idea that Henry goddamn Ford II would ever be a sympathetic underdog, Ford v Ferrari might just be your favorite movie to eventually watch on TNT.
Ford v Ferrari was a gala presentation film at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival and will be released in U.S. theaters on Nov. 15.
Image sources (in order of posting): TIFF, TIFF, TIFF