“Ford v Ferrari” is a big, somewhat formulaic, feel-good Hollywood motion picture about adults, the kind that used to be studio bread and butter before the superhero-CGI fantasy era.
Let us look at a checklist, as if we were, say, starting a very powerful race car.
Big stars giving big performances? Christian Bale and Matt Damon — check.
Director who knows how to choreograph action and deal with large themes, a broad canvas and just enough corn? James Mangold of “Logan” and “Walk the Line” fame — check.
Cool story about a somewhat under-known/largely forgotten thing in the United States? The American effort to unseat the beyond-dominant Ferrari racing team at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans — check.
A script that maybe tells, rather directly, as much as it shows? An unfortunate but understandable check.
Right, then. Hit the gas.
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In this overlong if still expertly edited racing epic, Damon plays Carroll Shelby, the legendary, Texas-born (see also: accent and hat) driver and engineer, whom Ford marketing executive Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) hires to design a car to beat Ferrari.
Shelby was the last American to win at Le Mans, and Iacocca wants to build a Ford-sponsored racing team to show the world that Ford isn’t a boring, ugly American brand, and its CEO (Tracy Letts, perfect) not just a spoiled heir and son of a genuine innovator but a force in his own right.
Shelby, in turn, hires his old pal, the eccentric, British-born, California-based racer Ken Miles (Bale going Full Bale), to drive lead and test the car.
Miles is an exhausting personality, an automobile whisperer of the first rank who never reads as mean or put-upon — the dude is just a lot.
He’s devoted deeply to his patient wife, Mollie (Caitriona “Outlander” Balfe), and adoring son, Peter (Noah Jupe, one of the best American child actors in movies today). That dynamic keeps the movie oddly and sweetly grounded. Miles isn’t a lone wolf driven by nothing but his genius; he is a dude who loves his family ... and happens to love hitting 7,000 rpm just as much.
Shelby’s goal? Beat Ferrari while retaining Miles, which is no easy feat.
There are a variety of baddies and obstacles. Letts glowers as the king-like CEO Henry Ford II (watch for the brilliant scene when Shelby takes Ford for a drive with unexpected results). Josh Lucas grimaces as oily marketing head Leo Beebe, who has his own agenda and can’t stand Miles’ lack of interest in anything corporate. (I miss Lucas playing decent human beings, but someone cast this dude as Iago in “Othello.”)
This movie title is a misnomer, of sorts. Other than his rejection of a Ford takeover bid, we learn very little about “old man Ferrari” and his genius for racing. This really is “Ford v Miles and Shelby,” which sounds like a lawsuit. (In some territories, it is being released as “Le Mans ’66,” which is technically correct, I suppose.)
Yes, the real story here is the high-speed relationship between Shelby — just corporate enough to keep the Ford wolves at bay — and Miles, whose wild genius is a perfect complement.
Damon is rock solid as Shelby — his role is far less showy than his partner’s. But Bale is a blast of pure British racing id. There is nothing ironic or distant about Miles, whose motto is “Drive like you mean it.” He is exactly who he is.
Mangold does a bang up job with the racing sequences, tightly edited for maximum danger. The turns and the speed and sound are delivered with vroom and roar, and in one hair-raising sequence, never has a car door not quite closing felt more thrilling.
And Mangold also handles a tragic moment with thoughtful grace. Of course, there are regrets, but as Hyman Roth once said of a life of crime in “The Godfather Part II,” this is the business we’ve chosen.
Even beautifully paced, “Ford v Ferrari” is a little too much movie, clocking in at hefty 2 hours, 32 minutes. (As one patron I overheard remarked, “Are they going to show us every lap of Le Mans?”)
But most of those 152 minutes are a ton of fun, a splashy look at the way obsession, skill and having each other’s backs can produce little miracles.