American cinema drives further toward greatness with James Mangold’s period sports drama “Ford v. Ferrari.
The film centers on a real-life attempt by the financially beleaguered Ford Motor Company in 1966 to beat Italian auto manufacturer Ferrari at their own game: race cars and speed. At the heart of the story, there is automotive designer Carroll Shelby, played by Matt Damon, and British driver Ken Miles, played by Christian Bale. They are tasked by the suits at Ford, led by Henry Ford II, played by Tracy Letts, and Lee Iacocca, played by Jon Bernthal, with building the company’s new Ford GT40 race car, and then use it to beat Ferrari at the fabled 24 Hours of Le Mans race in France. Shelby and Miles bond with each other at this Herculean endeavor, battling their own personal demons as well as corporate interference.
There is undeniable chemistry between Oscar-winners Damon and Bale, in what may be the most dynamic duo of cinema for this year since Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.” Both of them carry their roles as archetypal American and British underdogs toiling under the capitalist likes of Ford, which makes the film more than a simplistic treatise on “us versus them” hinted in the title. The two are the stars of the show, and they are infectiously great at making it thrilling.
Praise can also be reserved to Bernthal for serving himself up as a suave and self-assured Don Draper-esque character, who spearheads the plot and encourages Shelby and Miles whenever he can. In a film mostly populated with male figures, Caitriona Balfe, who plays Miles’s wife Mollie, subverts expectations reserved for female companions of daredevils: they can be non-sappy as well as deserving of their points of view. Also, Letts is spectacular in his portrayal as Ford II, who may be stoic, but can also be unexpectedly emotional.
Characters have always been one of Mangold’s strengths, and it certainly succeeds in making “Ford v. Ferrari” a sweet bet for the movie viewer who doesn’t follow the race car circuit. Co-written by English brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth as well as Jason Keller, the human drama in the film is appreciative while crackling with quippy dialogue and juvenile humor. Shelby and Miles, as well as the other characters that populate the film, may be the epitome of cool, but they are human at the end of the day.
Inside the racing circuit, “Ford v. Ferrari” is definitely worth watching for the adrenaline-fueled racing sequences. Mangold is self-assured in his directing prowess, as his hyper-kinetic technique is what makes the film shine overall. The viewer is roused by the thrilling spectacle of crunch, grease and noise on screen, and is reminded of the historical bond between these sleek and awe-inspiring machines and movies from “Fast and Furious” to Steve McQueen.
However, “Ford v. Ferrari” is far from perfect. The implied hierarchical clash within the Ford team doesn’t need to be on the nose. The film also takes a lot of time dealing with speed bumps in setting up the plot, assuring the fact that when it does get there, it can barely keep up with the audience’s attention.
But it doesn’t mean that “Ford v. Ferrari” is a meandering vehicle. It offers meat and potatoes cinema, one that showcases the seductive power of machines while also evoking human emotions. Its retro trappings are part of its irresistible charm. It is solid, fulfilling and complex. At the end of the day, Mangold’s newest tale is exciting and wholehearted.