Director: James Mangold
Starring: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Jon Bernthal
Streaming: NowTV, Sky Movies, Amazon Prime Video (Buy: £9.99)
I was skeptical about this film when it was released. First came the news that its name would be changed from Le Mans ‘66 to Ford v Ferrari in the hope that American cinema-goers wouldn’t mistake it for a French film, which suggested it would be just another broad-spectrum blockbuster. I figured it would be just another petrolhead flick for people who spend their weekends tracking F1 and NASCAR. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I was wrong.
Let me preface this by saying that I am not a motorsports enthusiast. I can’t drive and don’t really like cars. I figured this film wouldn’t be for me. But for all its apparent Hollywood swagger and its stupid blockbuster title, this isn’t really a motorsports film. It’s a period drama more than anything else.
Don’t get me wrong; if you like motorsports and know what a carburettor is, you’ll probably enjoy it even more than I did. But if you’re writing it off just because of its title, I urge you to give it a try.
After winning Le Mans in 1959 but being forced to retire because of a heart condition, driver-turned-designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is drafted by Ford to create a car that can win the competition.
He enlists the help of test driver and acerbic British mechanic Ken Miles (Christian Bale) under the management of Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) and Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts). More than anything, Ford v Ferrari tells the story of the post-war years’ global automotive boom, and how corporate rigour more often than not gets in the way of real, true, unbridled excellence.
At the heart of this film, arguably, is Matt Damon’s performance. It’s as good as anything he’s done since The Martian. He strikes a good balance between serious, passionate, and funny throughout. He’s also an excellent (and important) counterweight to Bale’s hot-tempered Ken Miles, who is as intense and committed as ever, if ever so slightly over the top.
But this film shines not just in the performance of its two leading stars, but also some of their lesser-known satellites, too. Josh Lucas as Leo Beebe is aggressively and intentionally hateable, and Bernthal’s young Iacocca is personable and charismatic. However, Letts’ thunderous performance as Ford’s heir and CEO is unexpectedly show-stealing. Remo Girone as the understated Enzo Ferrari, who gets just a few minutes of screen time, feels similarly mesmeric.
If nothing else, this film is an excellent reminder that modern Hollywood blockbusters can still be good. Its universal critical acclaim and commercial success are excellent proof of that. Too often in the last five or ten years, huge A-list behemoths like this film have suffered because of their sheer number of moving parts. They end up being plagued by bad writing, a lack of complexity, development hell, poor foresight… the list goes on. They become divisive, disappointing, or downright bad. Ford v Ferrari is by no means a perfect film, but it remains a welcome, refreshing exception.