Corporate one-upmanship and grueling race sequences go head to head in director James Mangold’s “Ford v Ferrari,” a masculine, unexpectedly heartfelt look at ‘60s endurance racing.
The film, which released nationwide Nov. 15, begins in 1963 with Ford Motor Company Vice President Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) pitching a bold plan to revive the company’s declining sales: buy out their bankrupt competitor Ferrari and market their sports cars to teenagers with disposable incomes.
When Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) turns down their offer in favor of a better deal with Fiat, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) orders his racing division to build a car to beat Ferrari in the 1965 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race by any means necessary.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans is the world’s oldest endurance sports car race, where the best race crews in the world travel to the outskirts of Le Mans, France to take on a 24-hour ordeal driven through rough terrain, regardless of the elements.
While Mangold’s (“Logan,” “3:10 to Yuma”) earnest, broad strokes approach to the story pushes “Ford v Ferrari” into overly sentimental territory, it’s not to the film’s detriment. Phedon Papamichael’s (“Nebraska,” “Downsizing”) cinematography shines during the film’s dizzying racing sequences, and the dissonance of Ford’s polished corporate mindset with the greasy, frenzied reality of the racing industry sharpen the film’s critique of American corporatism.
Iacocca hires Carroll Shelby, a real-life car designer and former driver, to oversee the project based on his prior experience with the race. Shelby, played by Matt Damon (“The Martian,” “Good Will Hunting”), remains one of only 12 American drivers to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
When the film’s penultimate race finally happens, it’s a brutally captivating sequence, more like something out of “Braveheart” than a race. Gears whine, cars collide and flames surround the track. Sweat, oil and blood cross the brows of drivers as they make pit stops and the manic energy on the sidelines offers no reprieve.
“Yeah, it’s challenging,” Shelby tells Iacocca before he accepts the job.
Shelby recruits British racer Ken Miles (Christain Bale) to help develop and drive Ford’s car. The hot-headed Miles is known for his diva-like personality and short temper but also for his incredible talent behind the wheel.
As Miles and Shelby work tirelessly to engineer the best car possible, Ford’s executives breathe down their necks, looking to guide the car’s design and control the project’s public perception.
Mangold’s film is full of thrilling racing action, but the narrative runs through Damon and Bale’s (“Vice,” “The Dark Knight”) performances as friends and creative peers.
Shelby’s brash confidence matches Damon perfectly. Damon’s cocky smile and unwavering self-confidence present Shelby as a man who’s all surface, but the film exposes the inner workings of a hotshot racer who’s forced to retire due to heart problems. Shelby is proud and arrogant, but he yearns for the days of his driving career, living vicariously through Miles.
Bale’s Miles is a fiery perfectionist, but he’s also a loving father and shrewd racing expert. His observations about their car’s newest iterations are pithy and scathing, but they’re also correct. When Miles has a take, Shelby listens.
Together, the two head Mangold’s sly portrait of ‘60s capitalism and American corporatism. Mangold’s film looks and sounds like the story of a race car being built, but moonlights as a character study and demonstration of the open market at work.
Miles and Shelby’s repeated efforts to break Ford’s corporate structure show the impenetrable nature of the industry. The sports racing circuit follows a yearly schedule as cyclical as the races it revolves around, and this irony isn’t lost on Mangold.
Miles and Shelby are trapped in a revolving door of conformity and over-management. Endless tweaks and engineering decisions are vetoed or mandated by the suits at Ford, and even facing Miles’s most spirited attempt at rebellion, the corporation wins on a technicality.
No matter how achingly close the duo come to breaking the glass, the cycle continues.
“Ford v Ferrari,” rated PG-13, is now playing in theaters nationwide.