Henry Ford II writes a blank check to create the world’s fastest automobile in Ford v Ferrari, a movie that, despite its title, is not exactly the heroic story of how the world’s biggest automaker snuffed out its niche competitor on the international racing scene by winning the Le Mans 24-hour circuit for four consecutive years in the late 1960s.
Directed by James Mangold (Logan), Ford vs Ferrari is instead the story of the two key men that made that happen: automaker Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale), who developed and drove the Ford GT40, and fought Ford executives (and themselves) every step of the way. Call it Ford vs. Ford (here in the Czech Republic, the film is titled Le Mans ‘66).
In the mid-60s, Ford sales were dipping precipitously and marketing executive Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) decided the company had an image problem: no longer appealing to young drivers, he devises a plan to buy Ferrari, the most successful racing team on the international circuit, to instantly put Ford at the top of the game.
But when Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) spits in the face of Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), the man behind the world’s biggest automaker decides to double down and create the world’s fastest car in order to beat Ferrari at his own game.
To make that happen, Iacocca reaches out to Shelby, one of the few American drivers who ever won the Le Mans circuit. Forced into retirement due to a heart condition, Shelby is now an L.A.-based specialty manufacturer who sells vehicles to the likes of Steve McQueen; Ford’s fury has given him the opportunity of a lifetime, but a 90-day window to create the world’s top car in order to compete in the next Le Mans.
Shelby’s top driver is British expat Ken Miles, a hard-working but hard-to-work-with mechanic whose auto shop has been seized by the IRS, leaving his family – wife Mollie (Outlander’s Caitriona Balfe) and son Peter (Noah Jupe) – in peril. Miles, driven to race, also can’t pass up the opportunity in front of him.
The real antagonists in Ford vs. Ferrari aren’t on the side of the Italian automaker; the film is especially diplomatic towards Enzo Ferrari and his racing team during the climactic race. Instead, Shelby and Miles find themselves fighting Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) and other Ford execs who demand control – and drive a wedge between the men themselves.
Damon is fine with a Southern twang as Carroll Shelby, though Ford vs. Ferrari shies away from Shelby’s personal life (and legendary womanizing). But it’s Ken Miles who makes the biggest impression here, and Bale’s tender, compassionate depiction of the rough-around-the-edges character ought to both win the actor some awards season attention, and shine a greater spotlight on Miles, a racing legend who never got the recognition he deserved – partially due to events depicted during the film’s climax.
While the depiction of some characters here is not fully rounded – Lucas’ Beebe and Letts’ Ford II come off as generalizations – it’s a pleasure for fans of the sport, in particular, to see so many key figures and events from the 1960s racing scene authentically depicted throughout the film, though the ‘64-’66 timeline is significantly condensed.
Despite a running time of nearly 2.5 hours, Ford vs. Ferrari never feels long or runs slow, and while the ‘66 Le Mans climax is the the film’s most intense leg, all the details carefully laid out beforehand help make it more exciting. Empathetic performances by Jupe and Balfe as Miles’ son and wife, in particular, help remind us of the personal risk involved, and everything put at stake.
In a genre light on films of critical acclaim, Ford vs. Ferrari instantly rates next to Ron Howard’s underrated Rush, along with John Frankenheimer’s epic Grand Prix and Steve McQueen’s authentic pseudo-documentary Le Mans, as one of the greatest racing movies ever made.