James Mangold's crowd-pleasing competitive racing flick "Ford v Ferrari" doesn't do much to break the mold of the traditional sports picture, but there's enough wit and warmth to make for a simple, well-crafted piece of entertainment. Balancing out the plot's general familiarity are some thrillingly-staged racing scenes, two excellent lead performances from Matt Damon and Christian Bale, and the light touch of a script that places an emphasis on humor and a bit of heart.
As the title suggests, the story centers on the rivalry between two titans of auto manufacturing: the sturdy American Ford Motor Company and the sportier, Italy-based Ferrari. Though the competitive clash between those corporations is the plot's catalyst, the heart of the film is the friendship between two men: legendary American car designer Carroll Shelby (Damon, projecting affable confidence) and hotheaded British-born race car driver Ken Miles (Bale).
The pair are enlisted in 1966 by Henry Ford II (the always fantastic Tracy Letts) — who's hungry for an opportunity to step out from his father's shadow and shake up his company's stodgy reputation — to build a car fast enough for the Ford Motor Company to overtake those of Enzo Ferrari at the world's oldest and most prestigious sports car race, France's 24 Hours of Le Mans. It's an event that Ferrari had long dominated, and Ford is looking for a little revenge after his deal to purchase the Italian company falls through.
Miles was a former British military commander turned daredevil race car driver. Shelby was a racer whose career stalled out due to health issues, before finding a second act tinkering under the hoods of cars instead of racing them. Together the two men used their task to fulfill their own shared dreams of racing glory and in the process made history, transforming the industry of auto racing forever.
Along the way, they must navigate constant meddling from Ford and his soulless corporate yes men (the most notable embodied by a cartoonish Josh Lucas) while also getting some minor support by Ford's then GM Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal, getting his most substantial role in ages).
Their task sets the stage for a David-versus-Goliath story, if you can accept a gargantuan corporation like Ford Motors as anything other than Goliath. Things can get dicey when a glossy, big-budget studio film attempts to adopt anti-corporate messaging, but the script, written by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth ("Edge of Tomorrow," "Spectre") and Jason Keller ("Escape Plan") is clever and swift-moving enough that it works in spite of itself.
Director James Mangold is a versatile filmmaker, having made everything from superhero films ("Logan") to Westerns ("3:10 to Yuma"), musical biopics ("Walk the Line"), and romantic-comedies ("Kate & Leopold"). Here he gets impressive mileage out of a high-energy story and witty comedy.
Bale and Damon dial up the movie star magnetism to play two big personalities, and it's to Mangold's credit that he knows to simply step back and let them go. The story might have benefitted from developing the emotional core of their relationship a bit more, but their dynamic is always a delight to watch as their characters work toward their goal and occasionally clash. Every moment they're together on screen is pure pleasure.
Bale gives a loose, likeable performance that allows him to be the most charismatic he's been on screen in quite some time. Plus, he gets to yell a whole lot of British obscenities, which is always good fun.
Miles does get some shading through the genuinely sweet scenes with his son (played by rising young star Noah Jupe) and wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe). While mostly playing the supportive-wife-at-home character, Balfe gets enough moments to take center stage that she's never left to fade into the background of the testosterone-fueled world of the film.
It's easy to take the pure Hollywood craftsmanship of a film like "Ford v Ferrari" for granted, but if creating a mainstream film entertainment were easy, we'd have a new one every week. There's a swaggering confidence to the film's construction, with snappy editing (it's not easy to make two-and-a-half hours feel this brisk) and the sun-shiny photography of cinematographer Phedon Papamichael brings a clarity to the film's racing sequences.
Those sequences are unsurprisingly a highlight, well-choreographed and staged. The immaculate, revved-up sound design helps create a visceral, heart-pumping charge — especially in a theater setting. When the seat-rattling, surround-sound roar of the engines kicks in, it's undeniably exciting. But the film's even bigger thrill comes from the inherent satisfaction of watching two capable people be extremely good at what they do.
Adam Lubitow is a freelance writer for CITY. Feedback on this article can be directed to [email protected].