Review: Ford v Ferrari

The 24 Hours of Le Mans is the most prestigious and longest running endurance race for sports cars in the world. Held in France every June, the race begins in the afternoon and runs through the night, testing not only the top speed and aerodynamics of automobiles but also the reliability and stability while racing at speeds of over 200mph. Starting back in 1923, the near-century of competition has seen many crashes and deaths and many more rule changes to help improve driver safety, but until 1966 it had never seen an American car manufacturer win the race. Ford v Ferrari tells the underdog story of “Le Mans ’66” (it’s more popular title for worldwide release), and despite small embellishments to characters and their actions on and around the racing circuits to help sell this film and its momentous moments, the American achievement was still captured and depicted in an award-worthy manner.
Ford v Ferrari opens on Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon, The Martian, The Bourne Identity) as he wins The 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1959 and soon thereafter retires from racing because of a heart condition. He begins to design and sell cars instead, founding Shelby American and putting his comfortably arrogant attitude and sweet-talking, Southern charm to good use. He hires others to race his sports cars, like Ken Miles (Christian Bale, Vice, The Dark Knight), except there really isn’t anyone like Ken Miles. He is a war veteran turned car mechanic whose knowledge of cars and how they work rivals his thorny attitude. An overall difficult person to work with, Ken is asked to drive with Shelby after Ford seeks them out to build a sports car to beat their competition, Ferrari, at Le Mans.
I write the synopsis in this way because in reality, this film focuses on the characters. Does it also involve really fast cars? Yes. And is it trying to tell a story about an overlooked piece of history? Yes. But director James Mangold, known for several heavy, character-forward films (Logan, 3:10 to Yuma, Walk the Line) also writes his characters into the story first. It revolves around Shelby and Miles, their friendship, and their time spent working with the Ford corporate team, and I think that’s what I enjoyed most about this film. Damon and Bale fit right into the time period and even though they play two completely different characters, they match each other’s caliber of acting. Several side characters also deserve a shout out: Jon Bernthal (The Punisher, Wind River) portraying Ford’s forward-thinking Vice President at the time, Tracy Letts (The Post, Homeland) portraying the muddled Henry Ford II who can’t live up to the bar his grandpa set, and Josh Lucas (Sweet Home Alabama & many others early 2000’s B films) whose character Leo Beebe, Ford Executive of the racing division, was the one Hollywood tampered with most and consequently felt the most out of place to me. He killed it on screen in every way he could, but it also has to be difficult to act inside the box of “bad guy who doesn’t play nice.”
The racing aspect of this movie was outstanding, including the look and feel of 1960’s race cars as well as their movement across the screen. With camera shots from almost every angle of the car, there were moments when I felt like I was sitting in the passenger seat, responsible for keeping a race car from crashing and exploding. Oh, and there was also a fairly accurate amount of vehicular carnage in this film. The history of Le Mans is pretty bloody, even after more rules and regulations were introduced in the 1970’s and on. Many drivers have died in car crashes at high speeds, due to mechanical failures, from unbuckled seatbelts, and in 1955 more than 80 spectators were killed when a car was hit and flipped up over the hay bails striking the crowd. Several crashes and close calls are shown in the film to summarize the dangerous level of commitment drivers have to this sport and to winning the prestige of the racing world. Actually, fun fact: Because the 24 Hours of Le Mans race and it’s history was and is still more widely recognized by Europeans and other countries worldwide, the film is being distributed outside of the U.S. titled Le Mans ’66. Apparently they didn’t think us self-centered Americans would go see a film unless it told us what cars we would see…but I appreciated the commitment by producers and writers to telling a mostly accurate account of what happened around the Le Mans race during the few years covered in the movie in addition to making it look good on the big screen.
Some other things I enjoyed about Ford v Ferrari:
1) The competition between Ford and Ferrari, although a bit dolled up, really hit home. Ferrari had won the previous 7 of 8 years (the 8th year being 1959, the year Shelby won driving for Aston Martin) and they created cars by hand with individual engineers responsible for each and every part, compared to Ford’s famous assembly line that at the time was building cars at a rate of nearly 1000:1. And when Ferrari rejected Fords offer to buy their company, in addition to calling them “ugly,” the level of loathing shown by Ford II did justice.
2) Although Ken Miles was not the picture-perfect driver to represent a company, Bale did a great job showing his care for his family, his hard work ethic, and his willingness to play nice in order to show his level of respect for Shelby going to bat for him. Also, If you’ve never heard Christian Bale speak in real life, just imagine a much more difficult to understand version of his accent in the film…basically making this performance look like he’s speaking on par with the Queen.
3) The friendship between Miles and Shelby carries the film. They regularly bounce from one extreme to the other in their moments together on screen, but even when throwing wrenches and fighting on the street they always hold back because they genuinely care for and respect each other. These two actors have quite the chemistry too.
There are a lot of facts I could share about Le Mans ’66 and the men involved in the race, but I sort of enjoy not knowing the facts behind these movies “inspired by a true story” before going to the theatre. So I’m going to refrain from talking about who wins the race, if any records are broken, and how the story concludes. A couple of great performances though and a movie that despite being 2 1/2 hours long kept my attention the entire time, moving from fast racing scenes to slow family moments almost seamlessly. Thanks for reading, and if you have already seen the movie what did you think? If you haven’t, Thanksgiving is just a few days away and a great time to catch up with family for a few minutes and then head to the theatre to avoid all the drama! Just kidding, but if you are looking for a few films to fill your holiday break with I suggest you make this one of them. I will also have a review of the new Mr. Rogers film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood starring Tom Hanks and Matthew Rhys up before Thursday and more streaming reviews coming soon. Cheers!

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