(director/writer: James Mangold; screenwriters: Jason Keller/John-Henry Butterworth/Jez Butterworth; cinematographer: Phedon Papamichael; editors: Michael McCusker, Andrew Buckland; music: Buck Sanders/Marco Beltrami; cast: Matt Damon (Carroll Shelby), Christian Bale (Ken Miles), Jon Bernthal (Lee Iacocca), Tracy Letts (Henry Ford II), Josh Lucas (Leo Beebe), Caitriona Balfe (Mollie Miles), Remo Giron (Enzo Ferrari), Roberta Sparta (Ferrari Guest), Noah Jupe (Peter Miles), Ray McKinnon (Phil Remington), JJ Field (Roy Lunn), Jack McMullen (Charlie Agapiou); Runtime: 152; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping, James Mangold; 20th Century Fox; 2019)

“A standard-issue sports film, that’s well-produced and well-acted and made the old-fashioned Hollywood way with flare, heroics and cynicism.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A standard-issue sports film, that’s well-produced and well-acted and made the old-fashioned Hollywood way with flare, heroics and cynicism. The true story is about the improbability of a business deal by Ford with people they do not like to make an American racing car for the nonstop 24 Hours of Le Mans in France in 1966. It’s a soulless drama that’s passionately directed by James Mangold (“Logan”/”The Last King of Scotland”). It takes shots at the ineptitude and darkness of the corporate world, and is co-written with a broad humor by Mangold, Jason Keller, John-Henry Butterworth and his brother playwright Jez Butterworth. It’s based on the true story of the visionary Texas-born retired racing driver and car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) teaming up with the fearless, gifted and outspoken, British-born WWII veteran, racing driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to win the Le Mans of 1966. This was the first-time the Americans beat the Europeans.

The L.A. residing aging racing driver Miles and his well-traveled partner Shelby, whose place of residence is never disclosed, find a need to partner if any future Le Mans races are in the cards for them.

When Ford car sales slumped in the 1960s, the egotistical Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), the head of the Ford Motor Company, looked for new ways to sell his cars. Buying into what his pioneering marketing head Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) said about the manufacturing of winning racing cars being the way to go to get respected by the public, Ford allowed Lee to contact Shelby about possibly designing such a car–he was the only American to win in Le Mans, though with a European car, the Aston Martin (but who suddenly retires from racing after his 1959 victory, hiding a serious heart condition). But things get off to a slow start between Ford and Shelby.

Things change when Ford is insulted by the noble but smug Italian Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone), the highly respected small artistic car manufacturer, who rejected the corporate giant Ford’s brazen power-grab business offer by calling him out as an Ugly American who makes ‘ugly little cars in ugly factories.’ The humorless, arrogant and bloated Ford responds by immediately hiring his own team, headed by Shelby, to build the fastest racing car money can buy, the revolutionary race car— the GT40. It can handle the rough roads of Le Mans and is faster than the classy Ferrari. The problem was who would drive it. It was on Shelby’s insistence that the volatile, obstinate, loose cannon Ken Miles be brought on as driver because he knew the car best. But he was met with objections from Ford and his devious oily top-executive Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) because they felt Miles was not a Ford type and not a team player. Beebe hated both Shelby and Miles, but especially Miles because he could not be bought and was determined to do things his way. The gist of the film away from the track is filled with Shelby fighting to get his man, saying over and over that if you want to win at Le Mans he gives you the best chance. He will eventually win that argument.

The characters played by Damon and Bale are both portrayed with a folksy charm as thinking action men. Damon’s character is of the laid-back good-guy type, sporting chic Ray-Bans and tengallon hats and able to deal in a reasonable way with the Ford power-structure by fighting with them on terms they understand. Bale’s character is played with a chip on his shoulder that shows him as an uncompromising risk taker. As their friendship grows over the course of time, they both realize they’re exceptional talents who could never respect themselves if they would get trapped into living an easy but empty life of conforming like they see from all the stuffy Ford executives they encounter who lick the boots of Ford II.

This is a conventional film, which compares well with Hawks’s Red Line 7000 when it comes to its racing footage. In the end, Shelby wins at Le Mans with his driver. But the meddling corporate types pull a fast one and when Miles crosses the finish line by slowing down as ordered, the dynamic duo despite their sweet victory get taken for a ride by the trickery of the repugnant Ford executives. For me, at least, this was the only time in the story I recall when the Bale character ceases from annoyingly saying from behind the wheel “Giddy-ap!”

Miles’s loyal wife (Caitriona Balfe) and fawning teenage son (Noah Jupe) have thankless roles where they’re required to admiringly look up to their man and pretty much go along with his impulsive mood swings, which might make them nice folks but made for dull viewing. But fortunately, there are plenty of exciting racing scenes on the excellently designed recreated tracks (rebuilding tracks no longer in existence could have been the film’s greatest achievement). Also its breezy style of shooting made it an easy watch, along with the time-filling scenes of highly emotional human dynamics fueling the interactions of the characters (characters who were never fully developed and hardly seemed real, but who kept the engine humming with their banter from start to finish).

Ford v Ferrari

REVIEWED ON 11/18/2019   GRADE: B