It seems like a Ford v Ferrari project has been in the works at 20th Century Fox for the better part of the last two decades. At one point, this story of supercar racing and the men who designed and drove them was to be directed by Michael Mann (I still shed a tear for what we lost when that master left this project); at another, it was supposed to be helmed by Only the Brave’s Joseph Kosinski, before Tom Cruise got his hooks in him for the Top Gun sequel. Finally, after years and years of pre-production, Logan’s James Mangold was hired for the project, and Matt Damon and Christian Bale were placed in the lead roles. No, not as Henry Ford and Enzo Ferrari, though that’s an understandable mistake I, being car-illiterate, often made in the run-up to this film’s release. But Mangold’s finally-realized take on this project is worth all of the trouble, and trust me, your father has a new favorite movie. Frankly, if you should skip out on seeing this in theaters, Ford v Ferrari will make for a pleasant surprise on a Sunday afternoon in March when you and he stumble upon this on FX, and you’ll wonder why you didn’t check it out sooner.
It’s 1963, and, not being satisfied with being on top in the US, the Ford Motor Company wants to stir the passions of its up-and-coming base of young buyers and attract them to the car manufacturer’s products using a previously un-tapped section of the automotive world: Racing. Not NASCAR, mind you, but events like the 24 Hours of Le Mans, of which Scuderia Ferrari, the racing division of the boutique Italian carmaker, has dominated handily for last number of years. So, Ford attempts to buy out Ferrari, but the old man, upon hearing he might lose his beloved racing division, cancels the deal. This lights a fire under Ford’s ass, and the company hires Carroll Shelby (Damon), a former driver who was forced to hang up his helmet due to a heart condition, to make them a car worthy of the winner’s circle at Le Mans. Shelby, in turn, hires his friend Ken Miles (Bale), a WWII vet who has a nearly-supernatural understanding of cars and equal skill behind the wheel. By 1966, the two create the GT40, a classic and beloved supercar by enthusiasts the world over, and take the circuit by storm, leading up to a showdown with Ferrari at Le Mans later that year.
Damon and Bale are as solid as foundation as you can build a film on (the two have a mid-film scrap that’s essentially the “I tea-bagged your fucking drum set!” fight from Step Brothers put in the middle of Grand Prix), and it’s actually quite nice to see the latter actor, famous for his brusqueness, work on a project that spotlights his warmth. His relationship with his young son, played here by Honey Boy’s Noah Jupe, is surprisingly sweet and meaningful, and it makes one wonder what Bale’s career would have looked like had he more often taken roles like this. A solid supporting cast, including Jon Bernthal, Tracy Letts and a hairpiece-sporting Josh Lucas, never overshadow the leads, and only amplify the solid work being done by the attention-getters. Your dad will most likely play favorites between the two, and you better bet there will be “dust” collecting around his eyes near the climax of this movie. It is, after all, their story, and not even the cars, nor any of the tools at Mangold’s disposal could get in the way of that, for better or worse.
There’s something almost intimidating at Mangold’s solid-as-hell craft here, even if it doesn’t possess the je ne sais quoi that the scrapped projects do — the visceral quality of a Mann version of this film or the sterling visuals of Kosinski’s Cruise-led take — and one could imagine a version of this story a little more dedicated to making the racing as pulse-pounding as possible. But few filmmakers could get to the heart of these characters in an accessible way as he does here, and his staging, editing and cinematography (done by longtime Wim Wenders and Alexander Payne collaborator Phedon Papamichael) recall grand prestige-pictures of yesteryear. His pacing, as well, gives us a strong sense of the passage of time and the hard work that Shelby and Miles undertook in order to see their vision realized, and, oddly enough, I found it an interesting expression of Mangold’s own position within the studio system at the moment. Here he is, a creative individual attempting to tap into the cosmic well-spring of human inspiration, under the thumb of one of the largest corporations on the planet, looking to focus-group and squash any number of corners out of his work.
Of course, that’s a tale as old as “creative” work itself, but Ford v Ferrari feels especially relevant coming from the zombified 20th Century Fox, a rare meet-up of film and circumstance that proves irresistible, on-screen and off.