Movie review: Matt Damon, Christian Bale steer engrossing, fast-paced 'Ford v Ferrari'

  • Car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), left, teams up with bad-boy driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to take on Le Mans in "Ford v Ferrari."

    Car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), left, teams up with bad-boy driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to take on Le Mans in "Ford v Ferrari." Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

 
By Mark Kennedy
Associated Press
Updated 11/14/2019 7:14 AM

"Ford v Ferrari" - ★ ★ ★

Cops might do well to position their speed traps near movie theaters wherever the new film "Ford v Ferrari" is playing. They might fund their whole year's budget busting speeders peeling out of the parking lots.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

This infectious and engrossing story of the 1966 showdown on a French racetrack between car giants Ford and Ferrari is a high-octane ride that will make you instinctively stomp on a ghostly gas pedal from your movie seat.

But you don't need to be a motorhead to enjoy Matt Damon and Christian Bale as a pair of rebels risking it all for purity and glory. Yes, director James Mangold takes you down onto the raceway, with cameras low to the ground and care to show the crack of gear shifts and feet on pedals. Yet he's not created a "Fast and Furious" film -- this is more a drama about a pair of visionaries who fight against a smarmy bureaucracy. That vision happens to be on a track.

The first three-quarters of "Ford v Ferrari" sets the stage for the furious 40-minute restaging of the exhausting Le Mans race -- a 3,000-mile, 24-hour slalom through country roads. So meticulous have the filmmakers been that they built an entire accurate Le Mans in Georgia because the original has been too altered in the intervening years.

Driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale), left, and car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) work together to bring a Le Mans victory to Ford in "Ford v. Ferrari."
Driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale), left, and car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) work together to bring a Le Mans victory to Ford in "Ford v. Ferrari." - Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox
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Damon plays the legendary American driver and car designer Carroll Shelby, who won Le Mans in 1959 but gets sidelined from driving due to a bad heart. He considers the best driver in the world to be Ken Miles, a daredevil British missile played by Bale.

If Damon is a bad boy, then Bale is a bad-bad boy, a role perfectly in his wheelhouse, another intense, almost-over-the-top role. But it's Damon, almost subdued, who shows real compassion as a man caught between corporate responsibility and honor.

Le Mans by the mid-60s was a plaything of Ferrari, which dominated year after year. Lee Iacocca, then an executive with the Ford Motor Company, convinces his boss, Henry Ford II, to enter the racing world and win Le Mans -- not necessarily for glory but to make the company appealing to young buyers.

"James Bond does not drive a Ford, sir," Iacocca (played by Jon Bernthal, perfectly cast, showing layers) tells Ford. "We need to think like Ferrari."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Ford initially tries to do that by just buying Ferrari -- but Italian head Enzo Ferrari tells the Ford delegation to "go back to Michigan, back to your big ugly factory." That naturally ruffles the feathers of Henry Ford's son (Tracy Letts, lighting up every scene with unpredictable energy) and so Ford is now ready to build its own race team.

The screenwriters Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller have fleshed out the tale with glimpses into the personal costs to Miles' wife (the enchanting Caitriona Balfe) and their young son. Their quiet moments at home may be a little hokey but are a welcome relief to the roar of the track. You can tell the writers have some stage chops with tight scenes that build to great lines. "Go to war, Carroll!" Henry Ford II bellows to Shelby.

Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) decides to enter the racing world and win Le Mans in "Ford v. Ferrari."
Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) decides to enter the racing world and win Le Mans in "Ford v. Ferrari." - Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

The film at some points should be called "Ford v Ford" as Shelby and Miles butt heads against an army of Ford executives in Brooks Brothers suits. The marketing paper-pushers are constantly trying to insert themselves into the race and especially don't want Miles to drive because they deem him "not a Ford man." Shelby fights back: "You can't win a race by committee."

The film then goes to the 24 Hours of Le Mans -- fake grainy TV and radio broadcasts help set up the tension -- and you can almost smell the burnt rubber.

Many of the songs we hear are well placed -- it's got a soundtrack of The Animals, The Sparkles and The Quarrymen -- plus, you'll marvel at another past technology: Sunglasses in the 1960s would make anyone look cool.

Perhaps the only thing overshadowing the two Oscar-winning lead actors in this film are the cars. They're truly drool-worthy. But be gentle on your gas pedal on your way home.

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Starring: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Tracy Letts, Caitriona Balfe, Jon Bernthal

Directed by: James Mangold

Other: A 20th Century Fox release. Rated PG-13 for language and peril. 152 minutes

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