The makers of Ford v. Ferrari, the high-testosterone, biographical joyride from director James Mangold, should be called out for false advertising.
Make no mistake -- this movie is not the Ford vs. Ferrari rivalry that the film title purports to enlightened us about, as the dueling companies compete with souped-up race cars in the grueling 24 Hours of Le Mans. That much is accurate, but the movie does not keep its lens on the Italian auto company for very long.
Instead, make no mistake, this movie should be retitled Gearheads v. Suits
The film retells a legendary tale from racing lore. In 1966, Ford Motor Co. was struggling to compete against the sexier, showier vehicles on the road. Led by stodgy executive Henry Ford II (called The Deuce, played in the film by playwright and actor Tracy Letts), the company is leaden with committees, bureaucracy and overall big-company slowness. It's the mid-60s, and the world is changing to one where high fashion, even in vehicles, is taking precedence over the wood-paneled station wagons that Ford pitched.
Enter brash young executive Lee Iacocca (an earnest Jon Bernthal), who convinces the Ford chief to build a car to compete with Ferrari, the sleek Italian carmaker that had won Le Mans the last three years. Ford first attempts to buy Ferrari but is rebuffed and is laughed out of Italy, with Enzo Ferrari essentially telling Iacocca that Ford is run by a bunch of empty suits that can't find its way out of a boardroom.
That sets the stage for stars Matt Damon, who plays car designer Carroll Shelby in a molasses-laced Texas drawl, and Christian Bale, portraying English racer Ken Miles. The pair are tapped by Ford to build a car that compete with Ferrari at Le Mans and win that race, helping bring Ford new resonance for its racing smarts.
`This is where the movie turns on a dime. The first third of the film makes one think that we are watching a traditional drama about the meat-and-potatoes American underdog going against the fancier Italian superstar that knows how to build fast cars.
But no. The movie instead becomes a tale of how outsiders Shelby and Miles must battle the corporate baddies at Ford who won't give them enough trust to make the world's fastest car. The villain of this piece is marketing head Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), who has a full-time sneer as he thwarts Shelby at every turn, telling him to lower the RPMs on his cars to avoid a crash that would be a marketing disaster, and forces him to replace Miles with another driver. Bales' character, an Englishman who too mildly could be called eccentric, throws wrenches during hissy fits and argues with track officials over regulations. He is not the strait-laced, even-handed driver that Ford wants to project.
Needless to say, Damon's character finally gets his way, after a scene where he drives a flustered and crying Henry Ford II around a track at high speeds while locking Beebe in an office. Ford doesn't realize what he has and capitulates on having Miles race, in a bit of movie dust magic.
As the movie inevitably moves to Le Mans, Beebe and the Ford brass keep interfering, wanting the right driver to win instead of the cocky Miles and insisting that the Ford vehicles finish together at one point. They are clueless about gearhead culture and about racing in general, epitomized by Ford flying away on a helicopter during the race for an elegant dinner that is ridiculed by Ferrari. Ferrari looks good in comparison, a small company that has moral standing and knows racing, unlike the American charlatans.
But the movie works on another level when it gets away from bureaucratic nonsense and just lets Damon and Bale talk cars, race and bicker. They are true gearheads, with dialogue peppered with talk on racing details and how to make their car lighter and more efficient on the road. Both are great in the role and are brothers under the skin, fiercely independent and wildcats who seemingly never have worn a suit in their lives.
Bales, a master at accents, here does a Birmingham, England dialect, called a Brummie, that can be hard to understand but is accurately dead-on. Boston-born Damon swaggers and wears a ten-gallon hat that showcases his character's Texas roots. Director Mangold, who also helmed and co-wrote Walk the Line about Johnny Cash, knows how to get under the skin of his main characters.
The race scenes are magnificent, if a little long, with a track recreated by Mangold's crew that moves effortlessly from closeups inside Bales' car to numerous crashes and dirty road conditions, to a pit crew led by Shelby that is tense and ever-watching. This is exciting race cinema, on par with those in Ron Howard's underrated Rush and even the great racing movies of the 1960s, such as Steve McQueen's Le Mans and Paul Newman's Winning.
Ford v. Ferrari could have been great if it didn't take a traditional Hollywood route in its filming, with Ford characters a bit too evil and the race team a bit too aw-shucks angelic. Miles is a bit problematic, as there is no exposition explaining that he's been a successful racer before hooking up with Shelby -- he appears more as a struggling weekend driver who hits it big when Shelby intervenes.
But for its faults, you can't help liking its spirit, as Damon and Bales just love to pick up the adrenaline and drive fast. That purity of vision revs the movie.