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“Ford V. Ferrari” is assembly-line filmmaking at its finest

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Courtesy of 20th Century Fox
3stars
Cast: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Tracy Letts, Josh Lucas, Jon Bernthal, Caitriona Balfe, Ray McKinnon, Noah Jupe
Director: James Mangold
Release Date: Nov. 15, 2019

The Ford GT40 is one of the great marvels of automobile construction – a revolutionary vehicle that can stand proudly with the Italian sportscars made by Ferrari.

But it wasn’t always that way. According to “Ford V. Ferrari,” a Best Picture-nominated telling of the car’s creation, the GT40 had its fair share of growing pains.

“It’s awful,” British racecar driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) explains after his first test drive. “It doesn’t track. Third gear’s too high, torque isn’t reaching the pavement. Steering feels loose cause the front end gets light. Above 140, it thinks it’s an airplane.”

At this point, Miles takes a deep breath, looks at the car, jumps back in and drives away. Flawed or not, the GT40 is still one hell of a ride.

“Ford V. Ferrari” is something like that early GT40 prototype. It is overlong, overstuffed and self-important. The script feels like it just came off of an inspirational sports film assembly line, and the film does little to add to its genre. But, if “Ford V. Ferrari” is made from familiar parts, the performances make its engine rev. By the time the credits roll, you’re going to want to take it for a spin again.

As much as “Ford V. Ferrari” is a sports story, it is also a story of ingenuity and teamwork that celebrates the geniuses behind an iconic American feat of engineering.

But how refreshing is it that director James Mangold depicts the true motivation behind this feat? Mangold knows that the GT40 wasn’t built out of a desire for greatness or an attempt to make a difference. Rather, it was born out of a bad case of wounded pride and corporate dick-measuring.

More specifically, it was brought about by Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), the grandson of the American automobile legend, whose feelings were hurt after a snub from Enzo Ferrari, who, among other things, called Ford fat and his executives “sons of whores”.

Never one to underestimate the power of hurt feelings and obscene amounts of cash, Ford resolved to develop a car that could beat the Ferraris in the 24-hour race of Le Mans, which Ferrari won every year from 1960 to 1965.

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Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

That’s what connects Ford with the two heroes of this tale. Miles is a former racecar driver who has given up the lifestyle to care for his wife and son. Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is a former Le Mans-winner forced out of the driver’s seat due to a heart condition.

Will Miles get back behind the wheel? Will Shelby provide his considerable expertise to the development of the GT40? Would there be a movie if the answers to either of those questions were ‘no’?

Which is to say that you probably know every twist of this story as well as a driver in his 12th hour of Le Mans knows the track. Mangold sticks to tried-and-true sports formulas – the underdogs, the rivals who may secretly be best friends and, of course, the big race. He even enlists Damon for some hokey voiceover narration that sounds like the sorts of musings Matthew McConaughey would have behind the wheel of a Lincoln.

It’s all very familiar, if handsomely mounted, which makes the two-and-a-half hour runtime even more frustrating. Mangold could have easily clipped a half hour or more. At times, “Ford Vs. Ferrari” feels as endless as Le Mans itself.

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Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

But the performances save “Ford V. Ferrari” and make it good, maybe even great. Like a perfectly tuned engine, every piece of the ensemble clicks together handsomely.

Bale, arguably, has never been better. He goes big and loud in his performance as Miles – an impulsive, hotheaded and often unreliable driver. He’s a hoot throughout, but he goes effectively quiet in places too. My favorite scene comes midway through the movie when he learns he is being let go from the team. You can see all the stages of grief on his face- from denial to anger to sorrow- in a matter of seconds. I can’t imagine another actor pulling this off as well as Bale does.

Damon has the considerably less showy role and, despite his top billing, often plays second banana to Bale. But this film couldn’t work without the easy chemistry the two actors have. Damon and Bale convey a whole lifetime’s worth of history between Miles and Shelby with just their eyes and their body language, and they put the over-explaining script by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller to shame.

Said script gives a lot of its expository dialogue to Ford executives played by the likes of Letts, Jon Bernthal and Josh Lucas, and they chew it up with glee. Letts, never one to underact, seems to be having a ball, and he absolutely kills in a scene where he goes for a GT40 test drive with Shelby. Lucas, who has spent his career playing dopey working stiffs, has quite possibly reached his apex with his performance as Ford’s senior executive vice president Leo Beebe.

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Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

As far as I can remember, Caitriona Balfe – as Miles’ wife- is the only woman with more than a single line of dialogue in this film, but she finds the humanity in a character that could have easily just been “the woman.” Underrated character actor Ray McKinnon is given one of his largest roles to date as engineer Phil Remington and knocks it out of the park.

Mangold keeps his camera low and utilizes top notch sound design to lure his audience into the racing sequences. He lingers on the faces of Damon and Bale – exuding sweat, tension and hope- to keep them there.

So, yes, this is a classic “dad movie” – the sort of thing Steve McQueen or James Garner would have starred in 60 years ago. And, yes, the script is overlong and cliché and not terribly interesting in places. But when every actor, big and small, is as committed and driven and having as much fun as they seem to be in “Ford V. Ferrari” (rated PG-13 for some language and peril), it’s hard to not find yourself smiling along.

About the author

Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves.  He can be reached at staticandscreen@gmail.com.

 

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