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.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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May 2024