James Mangold’s engaging, subversive yarn about American can-do is based on real events. It explores American car manufacturer Ford’s attempt to gain ascendancy in competitive motor racing in the 1960s. The movie is far from being an extended corporate video: it wasn’t unimaginative suits who made Ford’s feat possible, Mangold’s at-times overheated movie suggests: instead, it was passionate individuals with a love for racing and engineering.
The Italian company Ferrari is the champion at the gruelling day-long car racing event at Le Mans in France. Ford executive and future automotive legend Lee Iaccoca (Jon Bernthal) correctly assesses that a victory in Le Mans is crucial for Ford’s image. Consumer tastes are changing, and younger buyers want to drop money on vehicles associated with speed and victory, Iaccoca tells Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts).
Iaccoca lobbies with the Ford heir to commission automotive designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) to turn the Ford GT40 into a vehicle that will give Ferrari serious competition at Le Mans. Ford II is persuaded after an attempt to take over Ferrari is rebuffed by the company’s proud owner, Enzo Ferrari. Ford II calls his legendary Italian counterpart a “greasy wop”, and his racist remark finds an echo in the manner in which the movie depicts the Ferrari crew as borderline Mafiosi who lurk about louchely and generally behave badly.
A contest between a giant American company and its smaller Italian rival soon assumes all the seriousness of a space race. Shelby recruits eccentric racing whiz Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to drive the Ford GT40. It soon becomes clear that the movie’s title is misleading. This war is Ford v Ford, with company executive Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) scheming away like a stereotypical mother-in-law to place obstacles in the path of Shelby and Miles. As the Le Mans event of 1966 approaches, Shelby must find a way to keep Beebe at bay while unleashing Miles’s genius behind the wheel and near-metaphysical relationship with the racing car.
The movie’s A-list leads work far too hard to pump energy into the narrative. Matt Damon is cast as the straight man to Christian Bale’s overly revved-up Miles, but the stronger performances are all from the Ford camp: Jon Bernthal as the smooth and visionary Iaccoca; Tracy Letts as the smug Ford boss; Josh Lucas as the blonde and unscrupulous climber.
The story of male egos and mean machines is sought to be counterbalanced by Miles’s tender relationship with his feisty wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) and adoring son Peter (Noah Jupe). Mollie and Peter are eventually spare parts in a plot that comes alive in the boardroom and on the racing track. Iaccoca’s manoeuvres to keep the heat off Shelby and Miles have their fun moments.
The gorgeous vrooming wonders and racing sequences are shot with urgency and beauty by renowned cinematographer Phedon Papamichael. Multiple camera angles, including from inside the cars, give a real and vivid sense of the adrenaline rush and drama created by motor racing. The lashings of heavy dramatisation bloat the running time to 154 minutes, but whenever Ford v Ferrari is on the move, it remains firmly on track.