James Mangold brings the legendary auto feud to life with energy and insight.
In 2017, James Mangold gave the world 'Logan,' the seemingly final outing of Hugh Jackman playing Wolverine, and everyone – including yours truly – obsessed over it, to the point where it a very close runner-up for my favorite film of that year.
Really, that shouldn't have been a surprise in hindsight: even with the occasional 'Knight and Day,' James Mangold has been making exciting, layered films for over two decades now, between 'Cop Land,' the remake of '3:10 to Yuma,' and of course his Wolverine projects.
With 'Logan's impeccable success – and the first Marvel film to be nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay – it seemed like there was some pretty hefty anticipation over what James Mangold's next project would be. What surprised me was what it turned out to be: a dramatic sports tale about the feud between Ford Motor Co. and Ferrari during the 1960s, leading up to the infamous 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966.
I've never been a sports enthusiast, nor a racing enthusiast, so I knew next to nothing about this story going in, but I also was willing to give Mangold the benefit of the doubt this time around, and the buzz from CinemaCon and Telluride seemed to indicate I was right in my faith.
So, does 'Ford v. Ferrari' roll up in style? Short answer: it absolutely does! This film isn't just in consideration for my favorite theater-going experiences all year; it may be in consideration for the best films period this year. 'Ford v. Ferrari' is a fantastically efficient piece of racing history that flies by with the speed of its namesake automobiles, all with the help of some great work from its lead performers and racing scenes that will be stuck in my head for years to come.
In 1963, after a low point of public appeal, the Ford Motor Company led by Henry Ford II (played by Tracey Letts) attempts to buy Ferrari in hopes of purchasing their world-famous racing division. Enzo Ferrari (played by Remo Girone) refuses the buyout, believing Ford makes "ugly little cars in ugly factories" (at least, that's the quote in the trailer). Enraged by this, Ford commits the company to building a car that can beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the most prestigious racing event in the world that Ferrari themselves have won for the past several years.
Enter Carroll Shelby (played by Matt Damon), a driver-turned-car designer who was the last person to win not driving a Ferrari, but has since retired. Ford's Vice President, Lee Iacocca (played by Jon Bernthal) approaches Shelby with an offer: build a car to beat Ferrari at Le Mans. Shelby accepts with one condition: that he can bring on Ken Miles (played by Christian Bale), an ill-tempered, but impeccably talented driver who has worked with Shelby for years. The duo, along with a team of engineers, set out to build their miracle machine in time for the race.
For me, runtime in movies can be a blessing or a curse; sometimes, you notice the length and it doesn't take away from the craft, and other times it's the opposite. But then there are the rare times when a movie is long, you don't notice, and you don't care: that's 'Ford v. Ferrari,' clocking in at a heavy 2 ½ hours long, and I couldn't believe it when I checked my phone at the end of the movie. Mangold – with a script from Jason Keller with Jez and John-Henry Butterworth – gives us energetic racing sequences and subtle, but charismatic character moments all paced out in spurts that never tire the audience out.
This sense of pacing is due in large part to allowing the performers to carry the story through their eyes, and we get two dynamic leads to learn about. The first is Damon as Carroll Shelby, who may have the more difficult task of having Shelby command a room with just his presence, and he makes it work very well. He clearly has his own demons and legacy to live up to, but it's also through him that the movie allows the audience (like yours truly) who don't know about the ins and outs of car design to understand every little piece a bit better.
But even better is Christian Bale as Ken Miles, who keeps turning in one excellent performance after another no matter what project he's in. Miles is that perfect blend of talent, humor, and sensitivity that I really got attached to. You get the feeling instantly that this the best guy there is, but the wonderful thing is that he never flaunts it unnecessarily.
Bale enhances Miles' seemingly cocky attitude with a sense of extroverted glee that is both hilarious and infectious to watch. Just as impressive is his familial storyline with his wife Mollie (played by Caitriona Balfe) and his son, Peter (played by Noah Jupe), which give some of the most sincere and heartwarming moments of the film. It all ties back to Mangold's excellent sense of structure, giving us a bit of relief from the rest of the excitement.
As for excitement, you can bet this film delivers on that end. The racing scenes at Shelby's driving academy, Daytona, and the climax at Le Mans are all done with dead-on precision and some very clever camerawork, courtesy of cinematographer Phedon Papamichael. Again, they're long sequences, but they don't feel that way.
Bale muses in the movie that there comes a point in driving when everything begins to fade away except for the driver and the car, and, as pretentious as that may sound, that visual element helps drive that point forwards, allowing anyone to witness that feeling of bliss and pride behind the wheel.
I have some smaller negatives (as per usual), but I think my biggest issue with 'Ford v. Ferrari' is its title. No, I'm not joking, just hear me out. The title is a bit misleading, not in the sense that we don't get the feud between Ford and Ferrari, we just get a whole lot of Ford and really not a lot of Ferrari. In fact, Ferrari feels borderline vilified in this story; the guys in the black suits who the film rarely bothers to give translations to, and who we get little perspective from outside of Henry Ford II's jealousy. The story we get is fantastic, I'm just saying something like 'Shelby and Miles' may have been a more accurate title.
Regardless of what I may have added to the final product, 'Ford v. Ferrari' delivers in spades. It's a movie that demands to be given its fair due, but lets the audience go along for the ride instead of just sitting on the sidelines. Yeah, we're reaching that point in the year when a lot of really good movies are coming, so you very well might be hearing me be a bit overly-positive. See this with an audience, cheer at the races, and maybe see the creativity in the story as well: I know I did.
Overall, I give 'Ford v. Ferrari' 9/10
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