You have to really get invested in a story that essentially boils down to “boys and their toys” if you intend to fully enjoy Ford v Ferrari, director James Mangold’s old school drama about real-life racing champs Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and Ken Miles (Christian Bale). The pair bonded as friends and innovators to create a car–bankrolled by the Ford Motor Company–that was meant to best the formidable fleet of Enzo Ferrari at the punishing 24-hour Le Mans race in France.
Working from a script by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow) along with Jason Keller (Escape Plan), Mangold crafts something formidable himself: a two-and-a-half-hour character drama in sync with his previous character studies, such as Walk the Line and even the superb Wolverine send-off Logan. But while Damon and Bale bring their A-game and concoct some fiery chemistry of their own, there are long stretches that are less than compelling if one is not aroused by talk about engine blocks or quasi-mystical piffle about the effects of hitting 7,000 rpm on one’s soul.
It’s another variation on the rather tired concept of sports as some sort of a spiritual undertaking or manly rite of passage, with a healthy seasoning of “fight the corporation” sprinkled on top. Mangold is fortunate that he has Damon and Bale around to do most of the heavy dramatic lifting for him, but deserves a lot of credit himself (along with DP Phedon Papamichael) for punctuating the often tedious human element with some ferociously visceral, white-knuckle racing sequences.
As the film opens to the sound of revving engines, Shelby has just won the grueling 1959 Le Mans, but his heart is too weak for him to keep racing anymore. He transitions instead to designing and selling his own custom automobiles, working with a reliable team of engineers out of his modest headquarters in Venice Beach. At the same time, Henry Ford II (an imperious Tracy Letts) is watching sales of Ford Motor Company vehicles decline and is advised by marketing exec Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal, steady as ever) to get into the racing game. He reasons that seeing sleek Ford vehicles tearing up the track will create a cooler association for the stately company with young, first-time buyers.
After an offer to buy Europe’s seemingly unbeatable Ferrari line outright is rebuffed, and Ford’s first few attempts at building its own race car end in disaster, Ford hires Shelby to design a winning vehicle for them. Shelby in turn brings on Miles: a stubborn but brilliant racer and engineer whose brusque style clashes with the buttoned-down corporate culture at Ford (personified by the always slimy Josh Lucas, doing almost a parody of his usual routine as Ford exec Leo Beebe). The rest of the film details not only the challenges the two men face in building a groundbreaking new car, the famed GT40, but their own personal struggles and constant attempts at sabotage from within Ford itself.
One of the problems with Ford v Ferrari is that the writers pack so much into their screenplay that one ends up not being sure what the film is about. The title is itself misleading since the emnity between the two motor companies is more or less a subplot, with Enzo Ferrari (a role Bale was once earmarked to play in a completely different project) being barely fleshed out. Interestingly, this new Mangold film is called Le Mans ’66 in Europe, perhaps because of greater familiarity with the race there; but even that notoriously difficult event is relegated to the final 20 minutes and comes right on the heels of Daytona, making Le Mans seem almost anti-climactic.
Another issue is that none of the significance of any of this will reach viewers who have no idea who Carroll Shelby or Ken Miles, or even Lee Iacocca are. Films can suffer greatly from too much exposition, but they can also be wounded by too little: Ford v Ferrari kind of assumes that everyone knows about the history of motor racing, but it’s often very difficult to ascertain just what the stakes of the story are, except that male and corporate pride lay in the balance.
As noted earlier, Bale and Damon do a lot to push the picture across the finish line. Damon’s Shelby is a likable Texan with a solid sense of decency and fairness, as he repeatedly stands up for his friend and colleague Miles against the machinations of the almost comically villainous Beebe. Bale’s Miles is a complex, nuanced character, dedicated to his wife and son, willing to throw away his life’s passion and get a steady job for them, but also unwilling to bend his principles or concede his superior knowledge for anyone. Caitriona Balfe (Outlander), as Miles’ saintly wife Mollie, is sadly underserved by the testosterone-heavy story and relegated to “dutiful spouse” (the third such shortchanging of female roles this critic saw in a row, following Anne Hathaway in Dark Waters and Mandy Moore in Midway).
The film’s two stars share a clear chemistry and instant charisma that, along with the genuine thrill of the racing sequences, make Ford v Ferrari a film that does have its high points. But it’s ironic that a true-life story about two innovators who pushed back against a corporate giant to realize their vision results in a film that feels so formulaic as it plods its way around the track.
Ford v Ferrari is out in theaters this Friday, Nov. 15.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye