Tuesday 7 January 2020

Movie Review: Ford v Ferrari (2019)

A motor racing drama, Ford v Ferrari (also known as Le Mans '66) is a story of on-track development and back-room interference as two friends accept the visionary challenge of developing a racing program to compete against the sport's global elite.

It's the 1960s, and CEO Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) is looking for inventive ways to revive the car maker's reputation. Vice President Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) proposes a program to develop a new sports car and compete at the prestigious Le Mans 24 hours endurance race to challenge Ferrari's dominance. Henry sanctions the investment, although Vice President Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) is skeptical.

Iacocca recruits former Le Mans winner Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), now a sports car designer, to lead the nascent racing team. Shelby, who had to quit racing for health reasons, in turn convinces British driver and World War Two veteran Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to join the program as lead test driver. While Shelby and Miles make progress developing the seminal Ford GT40, they encounter numerous setbacks, including layers of corporate meddling.

Based on real events, Ford v Ferrari is an old fashioned underdog story, spiked with a corporate suit as a key antagonist and snooty Europeans as smug on-track opponents. Overall writers Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller neatly line-up good guys Shelby and Miles against a world where broken promises, careerism and out-of-control bureaucracy are obstacles actively working against Ford's self-interest.

Despite the relatively simplistic us-against-them narrative and plenty of mythical hokum about the perfect lap (that speech delivered in the moonlight, no less), director James Mangold delivers a rollicking film. The testing and racing scenes are exquisitely filmed and generate genuine energy, with the climactic Le Mans race featuring breathless and well-constructed racing and interpersonal excitement. The 152 minutes of running time absolutely speed by, often riding on the twin turbo boost of charisma provided by Matt Damon and especially Christian Bale.

Damon's Shelby is the brains of an audacious racing program thrown together with back-of-the-napkin level planning, but it is Bale's Ken Miles who emerges as the emotional core of the film. A mechanic at heart, Miles can read a car's performance like an open book and immediately determine required tweaks to improve lap times. He is also impatient, too honest for his own good and the farthest thing from a slick corporate ambassador.

Miles is provided with a family backstory including feisty wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) and a young son. However, all the other characters including Shelby essentially exist only in the context of the racing program, with no added personal depth. The novel concept of replacing the car's entire brake assembly during the race is included, but the film could have invested more time delving into some of the other technical breakthroughs that made Shelby's GT40 a world beater.

And while it is fun portraying Beebe as a nauseating corporate yes-man without an inventive bone in his body but adept at claiming credit for the work of others, the simplification erodes the film's serious drama. On the track it's Ford v Ferrari, but the real challenge turns out to be Ford v Ford.

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