OnScreen Review: "Ford v Ferrari"

  • Ken Jones, Chief Film Critic

“Nobody Believes In Us” is a popular mantra in sports. Athletes and sports are competitive, and everybody is looking for that little extra edge to push them to succeed against their opponent. “Outside of the men in that locker room, nobody thought we had a chance to win this game!” “It’s us against the world!” “Everyone doubted us, but we never doubted ourselves.” These are the things you often hear in post-game interviews across all kinds of sports. Nobody wants to be the favorite; everybody tries to view themselves as the underdog. Ford V Ferrari is a film about the Ford Motor Company challenging Ferrari for motorsport domination at the 24-hr Le Mans road race. It’s a story cut from the “Nobody Believes in Us” mold, but, unlike most sports situations today, it’s actually accurate.

Sporting events happen every day around the world and there are multiple champions of various leagues decided every year, but most of them will never be turned into a movie. The underdog story is a tried and true method of storytelling in sports movies because everyone loves an underdog. Underdogs upsets are shocking and thrilling. Ford found itself in this underdog position when it brought in Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) to design a car and build a team that could challenge Ferrari at Le Mans. Carroll is the leader of the team, and his main driver is Ken Miles (Christian Bale), an opinionated Brit who isn’t much of a team player and butts heads with just about everyone, even his good friend Shelby. Ken’s talent behind the wheel is undeniable to Shelby, which helps him tolerate Ken’s rougher edges, but it causes friction with the Ford suits who want to see things done their way. The film could easily have been called Shelby & Miles v Ford & Ferrari if Ford v Ferrari weren’t more palatable.

While Shelby and Miles represent Ford on the track, the corporate offices are populated by Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) and Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts). Iacocca is the one who convinces Henry Ford II to invest more in the racing game to boost car sales. He first attempts to make a deal to buy Ferrari, but that falls apart in face to face conversations between Iacocca and Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) who refuses to hand over his racing program. A scene where Iacocca relays the personal insult that Enzo Ferrari said regarding Henry Ford II features a terrific moment of subtle acting from Letts, who has the slightest grin on his face that almost imperceptibly fades to quiet rage on hearing the insult.

Josh Lucas’ Beebe is the weakest point of the story as the villain of the film. Everything that you think of when it comes to corporate greed, smarminess, and bureaucracy he embodies. He insists that Ken Miles is not a Ford driver. He’s continually able to convince Henry Ford II to go in a different direction and seems openly willing to sabotage the entire venture unless things are done his way. It just becomes a bit too one-note and borders on mustache-twirling.

Damon and Bale, of course, are the stars and give outstanding co-lead performances. Damon’s Shelby is a confident leader and determined to see the project through and preciously balances the corporate demands of the Ford company with the needs of his team. He and Bale are a great pairing together on screen. Sometimes I fear that Bale is gaining something of a Johnny Depp-type reputation for taking roles where he drastically changes his appearance to disappear into a character, like in The Machinist or American Hustle or Vice. Performances like this are a useful reminder that Bale is one of the great actors of his generation for a reason. His performance as Ken depicts someone who is abrasive and gruff but is also tempered by his wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) and his son Peter (Noah Jupe). In fact, the domestic scenes with Ken and Mollie or Ken and Peter are some of the low-key best moments of the film.

Of course, a sports movie about racing wouldn’t be very worthwhile if the racing scenes were not any good. Spoiler alert: the racing scenes are very good. Not just the racing, but the work that goes into getting the car right. If the suits at Ford and the Ferrari team weren’t competition enough, the car is also something they must contend with. They essentially spend two years tinkering with the car to get it right. And even then, there are unforeseen obstacles. A problem pops up on the very first lap of the race that requires a rubber mallet for the solution (This was a moment which also made me realize that generally speaking, this is a movie your dad is going to love). The racing is fast-paced and nerve-wracking. It puts you in the car with Bale similar to how Dunkirk puts you in the cockpit with Tom Hardy. All of the elements of the race are coherently told too, so it’s easy to follow exactly what is going on.

I saw Ford v Ferrari on the opening night of a film festival. The audience I watched it with was laughing throughout, cheering and clapping at several scenes and generally had a great time. And I don’t think it was just because it was a film festival crowd. The racing is thrilling, the lead performers are engaging and having fun, and it tells a compelling underdog story of the Ford racing team vs. the world. It’s a genuine crowd-pleaser.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

*Ford v Ferrari was shown as part of Telluride by the Sea in Portsmouth, NH in September. It is scheduled for theatrical release November 15th.