Director John Mangold creates a movie about fast cars, the people who build them, and the drivers who master them. But he manages to make “Ford v Ferrari” entertaining for all audiences, even those who experience cars as merely a function but never a passion. As his previous movies, “Walk the Line” and “3:10 to Yuma,” grabbed audiences, so does “Ford v Ferrari” because of a good script, skillful direction, and strongly written characters, played by superb actors.
We first meet Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) at his doctor’s office being told he has a heart condition that precludes any further career as a race-car driver. So Shelby turns his knowledge and energies to designing and building high-performance cars, which he sells out of his warehouse in Venice, California. Wearing a black Stetson and speaking with a slight Texas drawl, Shelby has a generosity of spirit that prompts him to recommend the edgy Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to buyers looking for a skilled driver able to race their Shelby Cobra 427s.
Audiences who saw Bale play Dick Cheney in last year’s “Vice” will not recognize him as the lean, craggy-faced, and dark-haired Miles, who had been Shelby’s co-driver and now operates an automotive repair shop of his own. Known for his irascible personality, Miles is quick to quarrel and even come to fisticuffs with his friend Shelby. We also see a gentler Miles in scenes with his lively, strong-willed wife, Mollie, and their young son, Peter, who loves and admires his father’s strength and skills.
Set in the mid-1960s, “Ford v Ferrari” also focuses on the Ford Motor Company headed by Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), who is eager to create a more exciting image for his reliable, middle-class automobile. Ford has just come out with the Mustang, already popular enough with the public to have a waiting list of buyers, but Ford sets his sights higher. He wants to make a race car that can win the European Grand Prix, a feat accomplished four years out of the last five by Enzo Ferrari. Knowing that the Ferrari Company is cashstrapped, Ford offers to buy Enzo’s company. Not only is his offer turned down, but he receives the scornful response from Enzo that Ford builds “ugly little cars” in “big ugly factories.”
Enraged, Ford grabs the challenge to create within ninety days a racing car that can beat the Ferrari in the next 24-Hour Grand Prix. For the design of such a car, he goes to Shelby, whose race-driving experience has given him insights that other automotive designers lack. Shelby accepts the challenge but also insists that Ken Miles be the driver of such a carefully sculpted and finely tuned car. However, Miles is never easy to work with and his wife is not eager for him to take on another dangerous competition. But after years of driving with Miles, Shelby knows that the shell of a car they will import from Britain must be calibrated to perfection by the man he calls “the car whisperer.”
Mangold, along with his cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, does a masterful job of making the complexities of design details both understandable and interesting to audiences. They place us inside these cars going 200+ miles per hour and point to the mechanism that indicates to drivers the fastest speed possible before the vehicle explodes into flames. The Grand Prix is the most challenging race because of its length and because of the country roads the cars must travel. Before the movie ends, we see cars careening and weaving around each other and the inevitable crashes.
While mastering the excitement of the racing scenes and the competiveness of the personalities involved in racing, Mangold and his actors succeed in making domestic scenes equally charming and compelling for audiences.
Two Hits: Don’t Miss it!
A Hit and a Miss: You Might Like it.
Two Misses: Don’t Bother.