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Before his back-to-back dips into the comic-book universes of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and the X-Men – in the films Logan and The Wolverine – James Mangold nimbly danced through genres in search of compelling characters. He’d make a Tom Cruise actioner like Knight & Day, but add on a bumbling innocent character to spice up the routine spy genre. He’d plunge into a conventional biopic like Walk the Line, but reinvent it with the aide of two commanding performance at the head of his Johnny Cash story.
Mangold’s back at the helm of a sturdy, red-blooded American story of ingenuity and stick-to-your-guns re-invention for the spectacular new Ford v Ferrari. You’ve probably seen this type of story told before, but rarely this well, with supreme talents overcoming nearly impossible odds to achieve a goal everyone tells them they can’t get.
It’s the late 1960s, and Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) faces a serious issue. The Ford brand, time-tested and baked into the American popular culture, is struggling to contend against an onslaught of cooler, hipper cars. Kids coming back from the war hardly want to plunk down cash on the cars on which their dads used to depend. Ford needs bold, company-saving ideas, and Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) has one.
Iacocca wants Ford to compete on the global racing circuit. Specifically, Iacocca wants Ford to go head-to-head with the dominant force of the international circuit: Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone). To do that, Ford recruits two men with intimate knowledge of this field: celebrated automotive designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), who raced in and won the annual 24 Hours of LeMans in 1959; and Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a hard-headed and short-tempered grease monkey who has a seamless connection to his automobiles, and might be the only person talented enough to drive the car Ford needs to build from scratch.
Even if you know the results of the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans – and the outcome has been famous in the race world since the moment the event concluded – Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari captivates and entertains with the peaks and valleys of the team’s journey. The riveting drama spins a classic narrative of teamwork and ingenuity in the face of stifling adversity, as Shelby and Miles constantly had to convince Ford of the risks that needed to be taken if they actually wanted to win the race, and not just contend.
Mangold recruits two of the greatest male actors working today to play his leads, but they are overshadowed by one intangible co-star I like to call “speed.” The racing scenes in Ford v Ferrari are breathtakingly innovative, with Mangold and his team routinely figuring out new ways to put us in the driver’s seat of some of the fastest vehicles on the planet. The chief obstacle facing Shelby and Miles was making their protoptype race car faster, so the tests performed in the film had to convey that achievement. Ferrari thrills by simulating the record-breaking pace of the cars on the tracks, but really captivates because we care deeply about the men trying to make the victory happen.
Bale, in particular, is fantastic as the flawed and conceited Ken Miles, a dedicated husband and father who can’t help but put his passion for cars ahead of the family he loves. He’s conflicted by his desire to be around for them, but unable to resist the temptation that comes with the challenge of being right about the cars that Shelby fights to design. Arguably, Ford could not have competed at 24 Hours of Le Mans without Ken Miles’ contributions, and I’d shudder to think of a version of Ford v Ferrari without Bale behind the wheel.
Under Mangold’s watchful eye, Ford v Ferrari tells a stirring, inspirational story about professional pride, and tells it extremely well. The screenplay creates rich, complicated characters out of its underdog-sport template (though two supporting characters drag the main plot down with their unnecessary contributions), and Mangold’s precision for filmmaking helps the ride stay perpetually smooth and swift. Hollywood used to specialize in these audience-bonding crowd pleasers. Now they are few and far between, so when one speeds along and is firing on all cylinders, so out of your way to support it.