Like with every other competitive sport, each generation of auto racing has its superstars, its heroes. But the men at the center of Ford v Ferrari, Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles, are all-timers—the kinds of luminaries who not only helped galvanize the sport’s popularity, but helped reshape it from the inside. Based on the real-life competition that developed in the 1960s between these two titans of auto making, director James Mangold’s film adeptly chronicles both this era of racing and the men who transformed it. But the filmmaker exploits the perspective gained in the six decades since for a thrilling, warts-and-all chronicle of the corporate rivalry that spawned a cutthroat competition, and the individuals whose achievements, for profit or personal ambition, forever changed the world’s perception of motorsport.
20th Century Fox
Matt Damon plays Carroll Shelby, the first American driver to win 24 Hours of Le Mans. Sidelined by health issues, Shelby joins Ford as an automobile designer just as the company fails to acquire Ferrari, an historic winner at Le Mans whose founder Enzo (Remo Girone) rebuffs its bullish, arrogant CEO Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts). When Ford directs his racing division to develop a car to beat Ferrari’s team at the 1966 races, Shelby recruits Ken Miles ( Christian Bale), a British World War II veteran with extraordinary aptitude behind the wheel but a terrible reputation for being inflexible, obstinate and an all-around pain in the ass.
Together, the two men work against the clock to develop a vehicle with Shelby’s team to compete in the race, which is less than 90 days away. But even as Shelby and Miles develop a comfortably combative rapport with one another, Ford’s marketing lieutenant Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) worries that the cantankerous driver doesn’t suit the company’s clean-cut image and attempts to have him removed from the team. As the day of the race nears, Shelby and Miles continue to make strides on the GT40, the first Ford car to make the company a contender at Le Mans. But the two men also find themselves in a bigger and perhaps more important battle, as they fight to convince the suits bankrolling their efforts that it takes more than just a perfectly-calibrated, premium vehicle in order to win.
Mangold’s film, written by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow, Spectre) and Jason Keller (Escape Plan), falls into some occasionally predictable rhythms of triumphant advances and tragic setbacks, even as it draws upon the real events leading up to the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans. But Mangold skillfully reconfigures this true story multiple times not only as a visceral depiction of the race itself, but a historical snapshot, a heist movie, a character study, a deconstruction of traditional masculinity, and a referendum then and now on the divide between men responsible for making and driving these extraordinary cars, and the ones selling them. Miraculously, he weaves these different elements together into an extraordinary narrative tapestry, aiming towards a distinct and unique finish line that aficionados of racing may be familiar with, but most audiences won’t see coming.
20th Century Fox
Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt were once slated to star as Shelby and Miles in an earlier iteration of this film for director Joe Kosinski (TRON Legacy), but it’s hard to imagine them in either role, especially after watching Damon and Bale make the characters inextricably their own. Shelby needs the all-American charm, and resolve, of a very specific era that Damon oozes effortlessly. Meanwhile, Bale’s charisma and dedication to his characters—including a fearless, razor’s edge commitment to unlikability—gives Miles a roundedness that’s mesmerizing and also utterly human.
A former racer in desperate search of his second act, Shelby crunches painkillers and finds solace in the rumble of a car engine, which first leads him to automobile design, and later, to develop a contentious kinship with Miles, who shares in common an appreciation and understanding not only of the machines themselves, but the purpose they both find when piloting them. Damon lends a reluctant movie star wattage to Shelby as salesman and negotiator between Miles and his superiors at Ford, while showcasing the absolute knowledge and authority that earned him his job as designer and later as head of the Le Mans pit crew.
Meanwhile, Miles is a Greatest Generation veteran whose best relationships are with the other drivers he addresses as he passes them on the track, and who wrestles in earnest with his responsibilities as a husband and father, a familiar if poignant dance between knowing what he should do, and what he must. Bale makes him wry and stubborn, but deeply intuitive about his areas of expertise—the kind of “always right” that makes a lot of enemies. But he also gives the character a real tenderness and humanity, which makes Miles’ relationships with his wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) and son Peter (Noah Jupe) feel vivid and important even, or especially, in the context of the history being made out on the race track.
Tracy Letts continues to prove he’s capable of whatever a script requires, and here as Henry Ford II, a man desperate to escape his father’s looming shadow to cast his own, he communicates the character’s self-importance, vanity, and a desperation that isn’t always as carefully concealed as he wishes. But he anchors a remarkable supporting cast that comes and goes throughout the film as both a communication of time passed and priorities set, including Josh Lucas (Hulk) as Leo Beebe, a sometimes thankless “bureaucratic dickhead” role he gives new dimensions, and Jon Bernthal (The Wolf of Wall Street) as Lee Iacocca, the Ford insider and gruff diplomat who can’t quite shield Shelby and Miles from Beebe’s disruptive plans to make their victory his own.
20th Century Fox
Cinematically, Mangold ( Logan) covers much of the same visual and narrative territory of those from era it is depicting – it’s a talky, thoughtful companion piece to Steve McQueen’s 1971 pet project directed by Lee H. Katzin, Le Mans, augmented by Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography and some remarkably invisible CGI. But even if the cockpit, car, track and pit dominate many of the movie’s most visceral moments, the filmmaker extrapolates from what’s going on in each race to explore what the race means, and what each man has at stake: Ford’s legacy, Beebe’s authority, Iacocca’s ambitions, Shelby’s future, and Miles’ very identity. And in framing those goals within the context of an iconic auto manufacturer fighting to maintain its relevance, and to confer upon itself a degree of prestige it much acheive at all costs, Mangold elevates what can sometimes be a very familiar story of victory and defeat, villains and heroes, in something more nuanced, substantial and resonant.
Ultimately, Ford v Ferrari is a story about instincts that cannot be taught and impulses that cannot be denied – material deeply embedded in the fabric of American mythmaking, much less a film about fierce competitors and their battlefield of choice. But what makes it special—as Ken Miles might appreciate, best among equals—is the idea that Mangold’s goal isn’t just recounting who crosses the finish line first. Rather, this extraordinary opus is a showcase for what’s always happening underneath the hood, not just for the exceptional machines that win prizes and break records, but the men who pilot them to greatness.
Featured Image: 20th Century Fox