There used to be a lot of overlap between what we think of as a Hollywood studio picture (designed to earn money) and an awards movie (designed to fill the trophy case, usually with an accompanying loss of money). Ford v Ferrari is a glorious throwback to the era when big stars did quality movies about actual people with real-life problems, but the scripts nevertheless adhered to basic Hollywood formulae such as “Have an exciting climax.” Today, the “awards-season” pictures tend to be allergic to entertainment, and they often trickle out rather than conclude. They seem more interested in making us feel guilty than inspiring us. Ford v Ferrari, though, is delightful old-school entertainment.
Christian Bale may be the leading actor of his generation. Not only is he a master of the technical stuff — the shapeshifting, the mimicry — but he also radiates the great intangible of star magnetism. In Ford v Ferrari, as in so many other parts, Bale simply owns the screen, this time as a skinny, snarly English mechanic named Ken Miles who drives in California car races on the side. It turns out Bale can even do a British accent. The man is a wonder.
When a fellow racer, the Texan Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon, nowhere near as effective as Bale but at least passable as a Southerner), retires from competition due to nerve damage and gets into car design, the two men join up to try to help Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) build a new model, the GT, designed to win the intense 24-hour race at Le Mans, a contest usually dominated by the designs of Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone). Ford tries to buy Ferrari’s company in 1963 but gets rebuffed as Enzo sells to Fiat instead. Mr. Ford wants revenge and respect for his grandfather’s brand, and he wants it in 90 days.
Though the movie goes on too long (two and a half hours) and includes some nonsensical stuff (notably a scene in which Miles’s wife drives the family station wagon like a maniac just to give her something to do), it hums and zooms and roars with the thrill of pro racing. This has turned out to be a tough quality to capture on film over the decades: The stars are the machines, the men driving them reduced to sitting in a box, their faces partly obscured by helmets. How do you make Le Mans half as exciting on film as it really is? The script (by director James Mangold and the English brothers Jez and John Henry Butterworth) artfully weaves in a lot of exposition, notably in a hair-raising monologue about the nitty-gritty of it all, delivered by Shelby in response to the question of whether Le Mans is “challenging.” When Mr. Ford himself (played with great entitlement but also determination by the playwright-actor Letts) takes a spin in a racing car as a passenger, it’s another useful method for teaching the audience how insanely hazardous the sport can be: “Right now the uninitiated have a tendency to soil themselves.” Backing all of this is a delightful note of let’s-do-this American bravado and grit, plus a serene touch of mysticism (above 7,000 rpms, we’re told, a strange level of consciousness takes over). Macho camaraderie, sometimes expressed in fighting, is essential to the mix. Seeing Damon and Bale beat each other with a loaf of Wonder Bread is worth the price of admission in itself.
Ford v Ferrari offers a curious twist on the David-and-Goliath yarn: This time we’re on the side of the giant. Ford, in the 1960s, is exactly as you’d picture it: Lumbering, timorous, bureaucratic. This is a company that mass-produces passable products for undiscerning consumers, not an engineering powerhouse that sets new standards. Profitable mediocrity, not elite performance, is how it operates. Middle managers are everywhere, typified by the human speedbump Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), who dislikes rebels, free thinkers, and anyone who wears his underpants unstarched.
The real enemy, you might say, is not Ferrari but Ford’s own stultifying corporate culture, and it must learn from the two mavericks Shelby and Miles how to “disrupt itself,” as no one would have said at the time. The unspoken assumption behind the film is that if there is any category on earth in which America is not winning, we probably just aren’t trying hard enough. Sounds about right to me. Plus, as in Talladega Nights, it’s always fun to teach those espresso-drinking Eurosnobs not to underestimate American resolve.