Making excellent movies requires fine-tuned precision—three acts, perfectly paced editing, emotional beats that result in a satisfying, or at least cathartic, conclusion. Building capable cars requires the same craftsmanship—four wheels (or more), well-tuned aerodynamics, a full-powered engine. That oversimplifies things, admittedly, but the fact remains: A poorly engineered movie falls apart as quickly as a poorly engineered car. What a shame, then, that director James Mangold’s expertly crafted Ford v Ferrari leaves the automotive design off of the screen.
Ford v Ferrari, out today, recounts one of the great stories in motorsports. In the mid-1960s, Henry Ford II decided to burnish his company’s reputation by getting into racing. To jumpstart that effort, he tried to buy Ferrari, only to be rebuffed and insulted by Enzo Ferrari himself. Out for revenge, the grandson of America’s greatest automobile maker hired former racer-cum-engineer Carroll Shelby, played by Matt Damon, to do whatever was necessary to build a car that will defeat Ferrari at the world’s most prestigious race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Shelby brought in Ken Miles (Christian Bale), the best driver he knew, to help develop the car and race it. The result is the GT40, the loveliest Ford ever, which unseated Ferrari to take first, second, and third place at Le Mans in 1966 (then won again in 1967, 1968, and 1969).
In recounting the tale, Mangold (Logan) makes two hours and 20 minutes feel breezy, largely by packing it with more than enough fast-paced scenes to convey the insanity of 1960s racing, when cars easily topped 200 mph but had few of the safety protections that make today’s crashes more scary than serious. Bale and Damon have a slick, easy chemistry, and the hair and makeup department deserves an Oscar nod for Damon’s perm alone. Yet, as beautiful as the movie is, its oversights feel like a nice paint job with little under the hood.
To wit, Ford v Ferrari’s twin highlights are viewable in the trailer: When Shelby shows Hank the Deuce the power he’s crafting via a terrifying ride in his race car, pushing him to tears and convulsive laughter; and when Shelby and Miles fight like the middle-aged men they are, while Miles’ wife Mollie (Outlander’s Caitriona Balfe) lounges nearby with a magazine, then brings her boys sodas. Sadly, Balfe’s is the only female character with more than a line or two, and she swings, inexplicably, between being Cool Wife Who Loves to See Her Husband Race and Wet Blanket Who Wants Him Home and Alive.
Maybe that’s hard to avoid in a film focused on a world inhabited mostly by men, especially one that puts the odd-couple friendship between Miles and Shelby at its center. Where Shelby is a people pleaser, Miles makes clear his contempt for just about everybody, taking up the length of a diner booth as he warns his buddy that the Ford bureaucracy doesn’t take to people like them “because we’re different.” As such, they must battle not Ferrari, which is more plot catalyst than antagonist, but the Detroit apparatchiks who time and again meddle with a racing business they hardly understand. The drama here isn’t Ford v Ferrari. It’s Men v The Man (at Le Mans).