At the end of every year, we shift from exciting summertime movie spectaculars and onto thoughtful, often dull, award hopefuls. In director James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari we have a perfect transition, a premium blend of high octane fun that knows when to ease into meaningful drama.
Set in the late 1960s and based on actual events, this is the story of three men. First is Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), who outwardly seems to have it all together, but on the inside is falling apart. The only American to come in first at the grueling auto race at Le Mans, Shelby’s heart is no longer up to the physical demands of racing. His life slowly descends into drinking, womanizing, and shady business practices. When the Ford Motor Company hires him to win Le Mans again he sees a way up. But to achieve victory this time he has to lead without getting behind the wheel.
Second is Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), a small man in a large body. He throws his weight around, yet is easily redirected by those in his inner circle. In one of the film’s most comical scenes, Shelby himself proves capable of swaying the giant. Ford II wants to have a claim to the greatest automotive company in the world. Unable to buy Ferrari, and insulted to boot, he decides to do the impossible and commission a car capable of beating Ferrari at the 24-hour race. But as he learns the hard way in his first attempt, the right car is useless without the right driver.
Enter the third man, Ken Miles (a scene-stealing Christian Bale), who outwardly is an out of control wreck. But inside, well, he might be an out of control wreck there too. Fortunately, he has his wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) and son Peter (Noah Jupe) to keep him from flying to pieces. Born to drive, fast and with unerring precision, Miles is better with cars and racetracks than he is with people. His abrasive personality soon makes him enemies within Ford, and therein is the primary conflict of the story.
Mollie Miles is a formidable personality in her own right. When she senses that her husband is trying to deceive himself, and thus her, she demands a response in a way that is forceful and terrifying but never belittling. She challenges Ken to acknowledge who he truly is. And in the moment of his ultimate sacrifice, when I was wondering if it was worth it, the pride and joy in her eyes gave me my answer.
Amid the roaring engines, screeching tires, and flying wrenches, Ford v Ferrari is about the pursuit of excellence. The racing scenes thrill, even if you don’t like car movies. Dynamic personalities clash and spark in ways that never fail to amuse. Yet it’s the unified press toward being the best—the best car manufacturer, the best driver, husband, parent, teammate—that draws us in and keeps us invested in these broken characters. Rated PG-13 for strong language. (Twentieth Century Fox)