In “Ford v. Ferrari,” famed sports car designer Carroll Shelby takes his boss, Henry Ford II, for a drive in his newly built race car. As the drive begins, Ford II attempts to lean into the macho image that made his grandfather an American icon. He mumbles reassurances to himself. He shifts in his seat. All the while, Shelby weaves the car at 200 mph through obstacles and around turns.
Eventually, Shelby puts the car in park and notices that Ford has started crying. “I had no idea,” the inconsolable Ford says to himself. In a film obsessed with the idea that corporations often bare down on individual creativity, this scene serves as a thesis statement for James Mangold’s view on American idealism.
“Ford v. Ferrari” is the story of famed American sports car designer Shelby (Matt Damon) and his driver, Kent Miles (Christian Bale), as they attempt to help Ford become the first American car company to win the 24-hour race at Le Mans. Based on a true story, the film feels a bit too held to its source material at times, especially in scenes with Josh Lucas as the conniving corporate overlord Leo Beebe. Beebe is a placeholder for the engrained American hatred of corporate bureaucracy stifling creativity and ingenuity, yet his scenes grind the film to a halt. One gets the sense that Mangold views himself as a Shelby-esque maverick with studio executives serving as the Beebe figure holding him back, leading to a fairly hostile portrayal that stunts the film.
Yet, the film still soars to rare heights, particularly because of Damon and Bale. Damon arguably gives his best performance of the decade playing Shelby, channeling an overconfident persona through an All-American kind of ingenuity and grit. Since his appearance in 2015’s “The Martian,” Damon’s films have been largely maligned, whether it be the failed “Jason Bourne” installment, the 1950s dramedy “Suburbicon” or the Sci-Fi epic “The Great Wall.”
In “Ford v. Ferrari,” Bale’s character does the majority of the heavy lifting and plot work, allowing Damon to give a freer, more fun performance. Bale, however, is outstanding in his own right, playing Miles as a hotheaded savant attempting to keep his family above water. The greatest moments in the film are when Mangold allows the two figures to interact as flip sides to a hyper-competitive coin questing for the greatest race car imaginable.
Mangold’s career is also at an interesting point. His career has been largely built around his ability to create purposeful star vehicles within the studio system. After “Logan” in 2017, people might have assumed Mangold would stay in the commercial blockbuster realm rather than return to the biopic style that made him famous. “Ford v. Ferrari” is certainly not “Walk The Line,” but both films succeed when Mangold allows his stars to interact, and both are often weakened by Mangold’s attempts for historical accuracy by getting bogged down in plot mechanics.
“Ford v. Ferrari” would make an interesting double feature with another 2019 film: “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.” Both are stories of two men of the late 1960s reflecting on their lives while fighting the inevitability of time. For Quentin Tarantino, that meant creating an Elmore Leonard style, highly talkative alternate history of Los Angeles. For Mangold, that meant crafting a testosterone-fueled romp about innovation in the face of corporatization. Another thing both movies have in common is that they’re far lighter and more fun than those descriptions would suggest.
The scenes of Miles racing down Le Mans or Daytona, or even the minor sequences of testing the cars, are miraculous and give Bale an opportunity to use his physicality and channel the sense of inherent danger in racing. Damon’s hijinx and deep-south inflection give his scenes a sense of momentum, allowing him to play off Ford II, Beebe and Advertising Executive Lee Iacocca with ease. And when Damon and Bale go back and forth, it creates for an iconic dynamism between the two, drawing comparison to Paul Newman and Robert Redford as an on-screen duo.
The film certainly isn’t flawless, as Beebe’s storyline would suggest, and the 152-minute runtime may wear on some viewers. But the film has certainly established itself with “Moneyball” and “Creed” as one of the greatest sports films this decade. As large budget films unattached to superhero mythology or previously existing intellectual property fade into the rearview, “Ford v. Ferrari” is a remarkable argument for studio empowerment of original ideas.
Damon, Bale and Mangold have all certainly used their appeal in franchises — usually to great success — resulting in the “Bourne” trilogy, the “Dark Knight” trilogy and “Logan.” The existence of a film as great as “Ford v. Ferrari” isn’t an argument against their roles in franchise films. It’s just proof that, when they’re allowed, they’re capable of creating something remarkably different and exciting.