Before seeing James Mangold’s “Ford v Ferrari” last week, my knowledge of race-car driving would have easily fit inside a raindrop. (There are cars, and they go really fast, and … that’s all I’ve got.) So I approached the movie with a bit of trepidation — two-and-a-half hours of fast car driving, without even The Rock or Jason Statham around to liven things up? Was this going to be one of those “it’s OK if you like that sort of thing” experiences? In the words of the delightfully laconic character played by Matt Damon: nope.
Whether you care about motorsports or not, “Ford v Ferrari” is a kick: both a rollicking true story well told, and a moving depiction of male friendship. At its center are two eminently reliable actors: Damon, as race-car-champion-turned-car designer Carroll Shelby, and Christian Bale, as mercurial driver Ken Miles. In the 1960s, Shelby and Miles were recruited by the Ford Motor Co. to design the ultimate race car — one that could potentially beat the sleek machines built by Ferrari at the annual 24 Hours of Le Mans race.
As is the case for all good buddy movies, the two men are a mismatch. Shelby is quiet and controlled; “words aren’t always useful,” he says at one point, in a rare moment of self-revelation. Miles is slouchy, loose as molasses (at a diner, he sprawls, practically melting into the booth) and says whatever’s on his mind, which tends to get him in trouble. But they speak the same language: car. Early on, we see a frustrated Shelby getting into his car, turning on the ignition and exhaling — he’s at home, and he’s quietly transformed. Miles, likewise, transforms behind the wheel: When driving in a race, he looks older, pulling every muscle in his face tight, like it might make him more streamlined.
The actors (including Tracy Letts as a quietly simmering Henry Ford II, Jon Bernthal as a smarmy Lee Iacocca, and Catriona Balfe as Miles’ intriguing but too-rarely seen wife Mollie) are well cast; the atmosphere has a “Mad Men”-like coolness; and the racing sequences — particularly the long, ultimate Le Mans race — are a thrill on the big screen.
I still don’t know much about race-car driving, but I know a great vehicle when I see one. Be careful driving home; after “Ford v Ferrari,” you’ll want to step on the gas.
★★★½ “Ford v Ferrari,” with Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Jon Bernthal, Catriona Balfe, Tracy Letts, Josh Lucas. Directed by James Mangold, from a screenplay by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller. 152 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some language and peril. Opens Nov. 15 at multiple theaters.