Synopsis – American car designer Carroll Shelby and driver Ken Miles battle corporate interference, the laws of physics and their own personal demons to build a revolutionary race car for Ford and challenge Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966.
My Take – While the sports genre on its own has generally found acceptance from a wide section of the audience, in every form and size, however when it came down to the sub-genre of racing, the case has been somewhat otherwise. With a major complaint being about how often the drama on the track becomes too deluged with the melodrama off the track.
While films like director Ron Howard‘s Rush (2013) and director Adam McKay‘s Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006), have been successful in providing both their own form of excitement and sound concepts, the sub-genre continues to remain void when it comes setting the bar for realism in the sport.
A bar which seems to have finally found its strong contender in the form of director James Mangold‘s latest film which is based on the true story of the 1966’s 24 hour Le Mans Race, where the titular companies faced off, which ultimately resulted in Ford GT40 engine cars taking all top three places. Here, director James Mangold has created a wildly entertaining film, a rip-roaring blast that tells an epic tale in intimate terms while also delivering truly exhilarating racing sequences, which will even win over audience who know nothing and care less about car racing.
The biggest miracle the film creates that it leaves viewers rooting for a big, greedy corporation to win out over a far smaller, family-owned business. Mainly, as the film is less about a rivalry between two giants of the automobile world than about the struggle between two seemingly marginal individualists who insist on doing things their way for the love of it, and thankfully, neither of them are named Ford.
While the film goes full throttle with the thrilling automobile action, it also hits the brakes at the right moments for its gripping human drama. It’s a masterful culmination of fluid script and direction, excellent performances from its cast, and crackerjack film making in terms of cinematography, sound, and editing. And of course, Matt Damon and Christian Bale make a superb team as the duo that pushed the limits of excellence in racing.
The film follows Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a formerly successful race driver, who after being forced into retirement due to his medical condition, has moved on to auto sales, modifications, and racer management, and Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a British driver, who despite his bad reputation continues to work as Shelby’s part timer and a full-time mechanic at his own garage to support his wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) and their young son, Peter (Noah Jupe). While the two continue to chug along with whatever comes their way, big opportunity comes knocking in the form of Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), the marketing in charge of Ford Motor Company.
It turns out due that due to a slump in sales, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) sought out a partnership with Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone), owner of the Italian automobile giant Ferrari, who were just fresh off their impressive winning streak at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. However when Enzo ends up bluntly rejecting the bid, Ford adamantly decided to dominate Ferrari at the next event, no matter the cost.
As Shelby was the last American driver to win Le Mans, he is hired by the company to engineer a car that can match up to Ferrari’s legendary red racer. But the moment Shelby brings Ken on board, a friction caused by Ford VP Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), threatens to end this race before it even begins, as everyone wants to take credit if the car is a success and quickly ready to blame Miles and Shelby if the project is a failure.
Here, director James Mangold does a stellar job of constructing a film that does justice for fans of the sport while also presenting a riveting watch for non-racing enthusiasts. With this film’s brilliant storytelling, you’ll witness the most infamous rivalry in racing history through the stories of the two visionary men at its core. The drama on the tracks at Daytona, Le Mans, and elsewhere is nerve-wracking and exciting, but the conflicts Carroll and Ken face when they’re not behind the wheel are every bit as compelling.
It’s a big film, but the film‘s 152 minute running time never drags and instead holds the attention past the final flag. But what makes the film bigger is Mangold’s direction. His writing and directing on films like Logan, Walk the Line, and 3:10 to Yuma shows his knack for reinventing and improving familiar stories, and this one doesn’t break from that tradition. Shelby and Miles’ story is compelling, but director Mangold digs deeper to find the motor that propels the film across the finish line.
Like the best sports films, this real-life underdog tale delivers visual intensity while also capturing the drive that leads people to become the best, whether it be for a single game/match/race or for a lifetime. We feel Carroll’s regret and anguish at not being able to race anymore, we feel Ken’s confident desire that he can do better, and we feel the rush even as a bystander watching these men push themselves for something that’s ultimately so intangible. It’s not about a trophy or a name in a record book, it’s about the run, the lap, the race, and it’s about the journey.
Even for a racing film, the racing sequences are quite long, taking up a good chunk of the run time. Luckily, they are very intense, practically shot, with a fantastic score to back it up, and sound effects to get your heart pumping. Everything about the exciting aspects of this film was top notch. Car racing in the 1960s was still intense and raw, and director Mangold works to convey just how death-defying and brutal the day-long Le Mans race was for a driver.
Coming to the climax of the film, which details all the unpredictable twists of the race itself, it brings home the themes director Mangold has been working to flesh out. The film could have been an easy tale of a dark horse winning against a runaway sporting favorite, but the reality of the 1966 Le Mans contest was much stranger. The film rejects hackneyed storytelling tropes to depict the limits of ingenuity in the face of capitalistic might, and the result is a rich crowd-pleaser with a pessimistic edge.
If I was going to pick at any faults in the film, it would be how for a film named after Ford and Ferrari, we don’t see much of Ferrari at all. There’s a brief visit to Maranello in Italy, then nothing again until the final act of the film, which takes place at the 1966 running of Le Mans. Also, in my opinion, Ford exec Leo Beebe was painted a little too much of a pantomime villain and could have been perhaps toned down a bit. As one would expect, the performances here are exemplary.
This is the first time Matt Damon and Christian Bale have worked together, and knowing that Damon specifically signed on since he wanted to work with Bale, has resulted in a palpable chemistry here. Both actors succeed at capturing the humanity in their respective characters, and the ensuing warmth is due in large part to their friendship. There’s also a strong supporting cast behind the leads, with Tracy Letts, Jon Bernthal, Josh Lucas, Caitriona Balfe, Noah Jupe and Ray McKinnon bringing in excellent turns. On the whole, ‘Ford v Ferrari’ aka ‘Le Mans ’66‘ is an engaging, emotional, and downright thrilling sports film that is incredibly well told and very well acted.
Directed – James Mangold
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 152 minutes