Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: James Mangold

Stars: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Tracy Letts, Jon Bernthal, Josh Lucas, Caitriona Balfe, Noah Jupe, Ray McKinnon, Jack McMullen, Remo Girone.

Christian Bale and Matt Damon in Ford v Ferrari (2019)

There have been a number of great car racing movies, with the likes of Le Mans and Grand Prix in the 60s to Winning and Bobby Deerfield in the 70s and Days Of Thunder in the 90s, to the more recent Rush, which depicted the rivalry between champion drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda. And now we get this dramatization of the rivalry between two famous car manufacturers, a David versus Goliath like battle played out against the backdrop of the epic Le Mans 24-hour endurance race in 1966.

By the early 60s the Ford motor company in Detroit had begun to lose its market share, primarily due to the influence of the affluent post WWII baby boomer generation who wanted something more sexy and sleeker than what the company offered. Company executive Lee Iacocca (played by Jon Bernthal) suggested that the company might try their hand at building race cars. At that time Ferrari had dominated the Le Mans race. Iacocca convinced Henry Ford II (played by Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and actor Tracy Letts) that the company should build race cars and take on the dominance of Ferrari.

In 1959 Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) became the first American driver to win the Le Mans epic. But then a doctor told him that he had a serious heart condition and had to stop driving race cars. Forced to retire from racing, Shelby turned his hand to designing cars along with maverick British race driving champion Ken Miles (Christian Bale), and some of their race cars had been quite impressive at Le Mans. Ford engaged the services of Shelby to design a winning car. However, the Ford executives were a bit reluctant to secure the services of Miles, believing the arrogant and hard-headed driver would not fit the Ford image.

Despite the board room battles with the Ford executives and the challenges in designing a $9 million car, the brilliant Shelby and the brash Miles eventually created the GT40, a revolutionary race car that was up to the challenge. Shelby also had to deal with the machinations of unctuous Ford executive Leo Beebe (played by a typically oily and sleazy Josh Lucas) who continually interferes with Shelby’s arrangements and undermines his efforts while ironically claiming to be a team player, yet he keeps trying to stamp his own ideas on the campaign and putting his own ego ahead of everyone else involved in the endeavour.

History shows that in 1966 Ford comfortably dominated the Le Mans race. And they won again in 1967, 68 and 69. Based on the true story of Ford’s historic victory, Ford V Ferrari has been scripted by brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (Edge Of Tomorrow, etc) and Jason Keller (Machine Gun Preacher, etc). The film has been slickly directed by James Mangold (Walk The Line, Logan, etc) who has shot the high-speed race sequences old school, although they have been augmented by some clever CGI. You can almost smell the burning rubber. The race sequences are quite exhilarating and have been superbly shot by his regular cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (Walk The Line, etc). Mangold occasionally puts us in the driver’s seat and gives us a sense of what it is like behind the wheel of a car racing at 200kph in often wet and slippery conditions.

Mangold and his production team had to recreate the Le Mans track of fifty years ago as it no longer exists – they filmed the race sequences on a number of country roads in Georgia and recreated the grandstands and pit areas at an old abandoned airport in California. The scenes have been seamlessly edited together by Andrew Buckland (The Wolverine, etc), Mangold regular Michael McCusker (Logan, etc) and Dirk Westervelt (Deadpool 2, etc).

The performances are also solid. Bale and Damon build a great rapport and the easy-going odd couple chemistry between the pair adds to the film’s charm. Bale is a real chameleon and he lost a lot of weight to play Miles. This is another strong performance. Damon is charming and driven as Shelby, but his is a less showy role. Letts brings plenty of bluster and some touches of humour to his performance as Ford. Veteran Italian actor Remo Girone is good in a small but important role as Enzo Ferrari.

The high-octane Ford V Ferrari is not simply for revheads though as this is a compelling thoroughly entertaining crowd pleaser. This is also a character driven drama that looks at the sometimes prickly relationship between the obsessive Shelby and Miles, both of whom are unwilling to compromise, as well as the relationship between Miles and his sympathetic and supportive wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe, from tv series Outlander, etc) and their son Peter (Noah Jupe, from Wonder, etc). The film also looks at the behind the scenes politics of car racing. Some critics have taken this to be a slight backhander at the sort of studio politics Mangold has experienced in his career.


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