Vroom! You can feel the power thrumming under James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari — and that’s a shock because this thunderously exciting true story is based on a stuffy business proposition. Back in the 1960s, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) determined to beat Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) at his own game by building a hot, fast race car — the GT40 — that could win the 24 Hours of Le Mans, pitting American crass against Italian class.
Luckily, Mangold fuels his true-life plot with enough flesh-and-blood action to leave to leave you dizzy. Matt Damon is Texas native Carroll Shelby, a former Le Mans champion — he was a co-driver in the Aston Martin that won the race in 1959 — brought on to design Ford’s rocket. Damon, that rare movie star with an actor’s ability to suggest a character’s inner life, catches Shelby’s Lone Star bluster, the quick mind behind it, and the deep-seated feelings he mostly hides about the heart condition that keeps him out of the driver’s seat.
It’s Shelby who persuades the suits to hire Brit driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a hothead who does things his way or not at all. Bale, considerably slimmed down from his role as Dick Cheney in Vice, has the lean-and-hungry look of a driver built for speed. As ever, Bale is astonishing, portraying Miles with scorching wit and staggering physicality. Even wearing a helmet, Bale lets you exactly what’s going in the mind of Miles. He doesn’t make a false move on screen. The conflict Miles has with Shelby, chiefly money driven, doesn’t mean the two men don’t deep friendship, even when it comes to wrench-throwing and a knock-down, drag-out fight in Miles’ yard.
Miles prefers a low-paying job as a Los Angeles mechanic to kissing corporate ass, repped here by Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas is sleaze incarnate). Ford’s right-hand man has a knack for riling Miles. Shelby exacts a kind of revenge when he takes Ford himself for a jaw-dropping spin around the track to teach the old man about the true power of a racing engine. The scene is hilarious, allowing Letts to go for broke. But even when he’s not sitting scared shitless in a racecar’s passenger seat, the Pulitizer-winning playwright is superb at finding the wounded pride in Ford who resents being No. 2 to his famous granddaddy. If he can’t buy Ferrari (he tries and fails), he intends to beat him at his own game and risk the family business to prove it.
And it’s intriguing that the script for Ford v Ferrari is also the work of a playwright, Jez Butterworth, who won the Tony this year for The Ferryman. Jez, who wrote the screenplay with his brother John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller, has a knack for the dynamics of human interaction caught in the clutches of American imperialism.
A few cliches do sneak in, mostly in the home life scenes between Miles, his wife Mollie (Catriona Balfe) and their son Peter (Noah Jupe). But Balfe, so soulfully romantic on TV’s Outlander, and Jupe, a wonder in Honey Boy, have the goods to make us understand and care. Mangold has proven skills as a director of actors — think Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon in Walk the Line, Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted and Hugh Jackman in Logan — and his intuitive guidance of the cast here can go from subtle to eruptive with no bumps in the road between.
It takes a few failed tries before Shelby and Miles are ready to show what they’ve got at Le Mans in 1966. But getting there really is half the fun, as is getting to know the characters as more than instruments charged with making it first to the finish line. By then, Mangold has us in his grip with no intention of letting go. The thrill-a-minute race scenes are shot by the great Phedon Papamichael (3:10 to Yuma, Nebraska) with an eye for catching every flash of beauty and terror. Mission accomplished.