In “Ford v Ferrari,” James Mangold artfully balances a compelling trifecta: the relationship between Ken Miles and Carroll Shelby, the tension of the car races, and the conflict between the creative and the executive. There’s a fourth layer that’s less fleshed out, that being the relationship between Ken and his son and wife, but there’s enough to invest me emotionally in the family. This is one of the most well-balanced and enjoyable films of the year.
James Mangold is one of my favorite directors working today. “3:10 to Yuma” is one of my all-time favorite Westerns, and “Logan” took the comic book genre in a mature and unique direction. “Walk the Line” had already proven that Mangold could handle historical topics, and he once again has delivered with “Ford v Ferrari.” Everything from the script, to the performances, to the cinematography, to the soundtrack, is all top-notch.
Christian Bale plays Ken Miles, an English sports racer who is struggling to make ends meet. He owns a garage where customers question his expertise, and in his spare time participates in (and wins) notable car races. He’s hotheaded and endearingly cheeky – it helps that he’s possibly the world’s foremost expert in racing. Damon plays Carroll Shelby, a former race car driver who won the 1959 24 Hours of Le Mans. He’s now an automotive engineer with a passion to beat Ferrari and take on the executives at Ford. The two men are constantly fighting opposing forces and even each other in their race to develop the first American car to win at Le Mans. [While Shelby won the Le Mans in ’59, he did not win the race driving an American car.]
Supplying the men with extra manpower and resources is the Ford company, led by Henry Ford II and Senior Executive VP Leo Beebe. We are also introduced to Ford VP Lee Iacocca, who initially pitches the idea of developing a racing car to his superiors. His plan is to purchase the bankrupt Ferrari as a means to boost Fords’ sales by racing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Iacocca and some Ford goons visit Enzo Ferrari, who insults their boss without hesitation, fueling an intense rivalry. Rather than selling his company to Ford, Enzo uses the publicity of the visit to score a more lucrative deal with Fiat, one in which he maintains ownership of his company. Enzo may have been clear in mind at that point, but what he didn’t see coming was Shelby and Miles.
Despite its main premise being racing, the human drama that exists in “Ford v Ferrari” is something that everyone can enjoy. There’s also a surprising amount of levity in the script. I laughed harder at moments in this film than I had at many of the year’s alleged comedies. I also found it incredibly easy to root for the protagonists – both against their adversary, Ferrari, and their corporate “partner,” Ford. Josh Lucas is something special as Beebe, a buttoned-up corporate schmuck who adheres to corporate principles because he actually believes in them. Being a team player is more important to him than winning. He considers Ken Miles, despite his talent, a liability to Ford’s image, and would rather have a steady company man behind the wheel. Fortunately, when he gets his way, it doesn’t work out for him.
The conflict between the creative and the executive is the primary focus of “Ford v Ferrari.” Mangold has publicly stated that he wasn’t as interested in the actual racing as he was in the drama behind it. It’s shocking to say that a movie like this is considered a “risk” to produce. From my point of view, this is about as mainstream as it gets, but perhaps my love for older cinema and good old-fashioned drama skews my opinion. This is as much a spectacle as “Avengers: Endgame,” and should be seen by people of all ages. “Ford v Ferrari” not only inspired me to drive a bit faster on the way home, but also to read about the historical events it was based on.