Ford v. Ferrari has no ambition except to entertain, and it does so exceedingly well. That’s not something I take for granted. A great true-life story, a sharply written screenplay, superior production values, and a perfect cast are the basic ingredients, deftly orchestrated by director James Mangold.
We’ve come to expect excellence from Matt Damon, who plays celebrated auto designer Carroll Shelby, but we haven’t seen Christian Bale in a lighthearted role for some time, so it’s a special treat to watch him wearing a smile as maverick race car driver and engineer Ken Miles. This is the story of their knockabout friendship as they take on the challenge of producing a car that can compete with Enzo Ferrari’s to win the grueling 24-hour Le Mans race in 1968.
The film moves at a brisk pace and almost never flags over its 152-minute running time. The race scenes are incredibly vivid and exciting, making expert use of visual effects to heighten the experience beyond what was possible in the last generation of white-knuckle films in this genre (like Le Mans, from 1971).
The script is credited to Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller, who populate the film with colorful if broadly drawn characters. My only complaint is a piece of foreshadowing that stands out like a neon billboard, prompting us in the audience to wait for an incident that is bound to happen somewhere along the road. If I were a screenwriting teacher I would penalize a student who did something like that.
Tracy Letts makes the most of his juicy part as Henry Ford II, an impossibly tough boss who knows what he wants and expects to get it with no questions asked. Josh Lucas is appropriately oily as a sycophantic Ford manager who locks horns with Shelby and refuses to back down—ever.
Shelby is sincere and well-adjusted while his comrade in arms is a loose cannon—supremely talented but equally headstrong. Like the Chuck Yeager character in The Right Stuff, he’s married to a good woman (Caitriona Balfe) who understands his passion for cars and gives him the space he needs. Noah Jupe is quite likable as his hero-worshipping son.
It’s rare to find a mainstream Hollywood film that works on so many levels. Ford v. Ferrari fills the screen with breathtaking action scenes and equally provocative character development. I’d call that a win-win.