Ford v Ferrari Review: An Exquisite Racing Drama that Doesn’t Skimp on the Bruises

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Ford v Ferrari Review: An Exquisite Racing Drama that Doesn’t Skimp on the Bruises

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

In one of the most delightful sequences in James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari, its protagonists, Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and Ken Miles (Christian Bale), two gifted, cogent, and compassionate men resolve their unacknowledged beef with a public fistfight. It’s a sunny day when Shelby shows up on the street opposite Miles’ house. Miles is just returning from a grocery run and the mere sight of Shelby is enough for him to wear a mask of passive-aggressiveness. From his face, it’s clear as day that he is still slighted; Shelby on his part, is genuinely regretful for being the one to cause him hurt. But when no amount of small talk, polite persuasion, or heartfelt apology defuses the tension between them, the two men – the closest each come to having a best friend – readily resort to punches.

Miles knocks Shelby on the nose and in a matter of moments, both of them are on the grass, wrestling with the juvenile brashness of boys throwing tantrums. Even though this scene has nothing to do with cars, embedded within its pleasant mundanities is the one thing that Mangold really concerns himself with in Ford v Ferrari: the side of people that resides between pride and ego. This moment in particular, deftly, tenderly, captures the descent of irrationality that takes over even the most well-meaning of humans when they’re unable to separate the wounds on their pride from those on their ego.

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It’s not entirely surprising that it is Mangold, director of Wolverine and Logan – inarguably, two of the most distinct superhero character studies – who strives to see beyond the usual beats of both a sports biopic and a racing drama. It’s a risky subversion to use individual glory and team spirit – the two tenets of this kind of edge-of-the-seat storytelling – as mere supporting acts in a film like Ford v Ferrari. It, after all, revolves around stakes so dramatic – the fabled 24-hour endurance event, the 1966 Le Mans race – that you’d be forgiven for making a cliche out of a sports drama. And yet, Mangold doesn’t give in: In Ford v Ferrari, the rivalry indicated in the title is merely a footnote as is the actual outcome of the race, that is mounted and filmed with sheer precision and near perfection. Instead, the filmmaker – his directorial style is perhaps the most assured here – locates the bruises that propel men to declare war and mistake it for glory, lending it a wistful, reflective gaze that is reminiscent of both, First Man and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

It’s this approach that possibly makes Ford v Ferrari that rare racing film that engrosses you irrespective of whether you’re nutty for automotives or tales about men past their prime. I’d argue that the film works even better if you choose to go in without any knowledge of the race, its outcome, or even aftermath, simply to relish the pleasures of Mangold’s satisfying filmmaking that makes a big deal out of just the right kind of nothings.

In Ford v Ferrari, the rivalry indicated in the title is merely a footnote as is the actual outcome of the race, that is mounted and filmed with sheer precision and near perfection.

For instance, the film – set in the mid 1960s – really takes off when the executives at Ford return from Italy after a failed takeover bid. The idea was to buy out Ferrari, the smaller Italian car manufacturing giant as a clever PR exercise: Buying Ferrari would have also meant that Ford would be able to control their competitive racing program and the prestige that came with it. The conflict doesn’t arise when Henry Ford II (Tracy Wetts) is relayed the news of this rebuke. What gets to him is an oddly specific jab that accompanies the rejection – Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) telling his executives to remind him that he is not Henry Ford, he is Henry Ford II. Ferrari intends this statement as a bait for Ford’s pride, but it does much more damage: it ends up taking room in his ego. What ensues is war: He announces that Ford will not only participate in Le Mans, a race that Ferrari has built a reputation for winning four times in the last five years, but also to dethrone them as the champions.

To achieve this almost impossible feat willed out of thin air, Ford brings in Shelby, a retired racing driver who is the only American to have won Le Mans, as their personal automotive designer. Shelby in turn recruits Miles, a stubborn but brilliant driver who understands cars even better than he drives them. Together, they fight against time, corporate pettiness, and their own weaknesses, to push themselves and each other to the limits. Damon and Bale play the cinematic equivalent of good cop, bad cop with their distinctive acting styles – Bale is brash and showy to a fault and Damon, a perennially generous actor allows him even more room to act out. 

Much of the tenderness that Ford v Ferrari mines out of this precise portrait of emotional volatility is testament to how finely both the actors square off each other. The racetrack might be where the action unfolds, but Mangold insists that you focus off track. Really, it’s the damages of glory that make Ford v Ferrari so exhilarating.

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