Spoiler alert: “Ford v Ferrari” isn’t about Henry Ford and Enzo Ferrari in a vicious battle for survival, as they try to brutally murder one another like “Batman V. Superman,” “Alien vs. Predator” or “Kramer vs. Kramer.” The battle here is a friendly competition between two rival car companies in a contest of spending an obscenely large sum of money to prove who has the bigger dick. Instead of just unzipping and settling things, two icons of the motor industry decide to project their inadequacies onto their subordinates by trying to and create a car that can win the fabled 24-hour LeMans car race.
Detect my jaunty tone in the previous paragraph? The truth is, I found myself strangely at odds with the movie by the time the final credits rolled. Mainly, it intends to be inspirational—or at least make the audience root for some clear underdog. But it takes a few interesting twists and turns so all their efforts seem like a road to nowhere.
Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is a successful race-car driver, forced off the track by high blood pressure. Cars are the only thing Carroll knows, so he goes into business selling sports cars while trying to get his own race team going. Ken Miles (Christian Bale) is a gifted driver who plays by his own rules. He’s the best driver in the world, but the big wigs at the automobile companies are reluctant to put this loose cannon in the driver’s seat of their multi-million-dollar race cars.
That is until Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) feels disrespected by the pompous Enzo Ferarri (Remo Girone) after his advances for a big-time acquisition are spurned. If Ford cannot have Ferrari, he will destroy it!
So Ford gets his corporate cronies, Lee Iacocca (John Bernthal) and Leo Bebee (Josh Lucas), to find a team that can beat Ferrari and embarrass them on the international stage. Iacocca reaches out to Carroll and gives him a blank check to put together a car and driver that can show those snotty Italians just what American ingenuity is capable of.
There are two things great about “Ford v Ferrari”: the cast and car-racing scenes. Matt Damon and Christian Bale are so much fun to watch. Their friendship feels genuine, and their chemistry is as strong as any two actors I’ve seen on screen in 2019. I liked the characters, and I enjoyed watching their struggles, even if ultimately it feels like their blood, sweat and tears are wasted on a company that exploited their talents for their own glory.
Director James Mangold (“Logan”) does a great job telling this earnest story of mechanics and men. He tries like hell to make Carroll and Miles’ hard-fought battles feel righteous and important.
They are race-car-driving purists, fighting with corporate overlords who just don’t understand what real racing is. Ultimately, Carroll and Miles are eaten by the machinations of the very business that writes their checks. The end of the film is, frankly, depressing as hell. I admire the blunt, honest portrayal of this true story. However, it feels like Mangold is trying to sell the ending as heartwarming when in reality it’s far more heartbreaking.
The racing itself is great in “Ford v Ferrari.” There are absolutely gorgeous sequences featuring fast cars that put the viewer right in the middle of the action. From cinematography to sound design to editing, the movie’s an absolute thrill ride, especially when the cars are finally able to cut loose.
This is one of the few movies this year that managed to hang around my cerebellum after leaving the theater. I’m not sure if Mangold was trying to make a point about the futility of human endeavors, but it’s what resonates with me. All this sound and fury for small grasps of fleeting glory.