Just hours before leaving to participate in the 1966 Le Mans — the “most arduous, torturous automobile race” — racer Ken Miles (a brilliant Christian Bale) sits down with his son Peter to explain the track. Peter has a sketch of the track replete with the corners and names of each stretch.
While Miles talks about how he will manoeuver the track, Peter has his eyes trained on his dad. What the track has in store matter , neither to Peter nor to us.
It is not about the race or the car. It is about the driver. It is about Miles. It is about the man behind the machine, the madness behind the method, and the coup de maître beyond all the mayhem.
As Ernest Hemingway once said, “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” These are the only sports where lives are put on the line.
But Ford V Ferrari is not just about Miles behind the wheel. The first sound we hear in the film is of a vehicle revving.
It is the crunching, gruelling 6000-7000 rpm of a vehicle that makes our hearts pound as the revving becomes louder.
That’s when we are introduced to Carroll Shelby (a terrific Matt Damon), who is on the last leg of the 1959 Le Mans. Out of nowhere, his car catches fire, and so does Shelby. A quick first-aid later, he is back inside the hallowed machine and races his way to become the first American to win Le Mans. But the race costs him his health, and he is resigned to a career that forces him to forego the thrill of speed.
Ford V Ferrari begins almost two decades after World War II, as the Ford company is facing one of their biggest sales slumps.
To cater to the sports-car-loving generation, they want to buy out Ferrari. But Enzo Ferrari does not want his legacy to fall in the hands of the Ford company, which he feels is just a conglomerate of what we’d now call corporate stooges.
A slighted Henry Ford II (a wonderful Tracy Letts) decides to put Enzo in his place by snubbing him at Le Mans. That’s where Shelby and his friend/maverick driver Miles come into the picture.
While the title might suggest Ferrari is the villain, it is anything but. It is the well-oiled corporate machinery of Ford, lead by executive Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), that is the villain. Miles, the brash British racer, doesn’t fit into their marketing ideals. Ford is a company that doesn’t even want James Bond driving their car because he is a “degenerate.”
Ford V Ferrari becomes less a film about the competition between industry giants and more about how Shelby and Miles hoodwink the stooges to give Ford a shot at winning the title.
These schemes to outsmart the Ford bosses give rise to both hilarious and poignant moments. There’s one particularly outstanding scene involving Letts and Damon, which begins on a funny note, and by the time it ends, we well up. Such brilliance in writing is seen throughout the film that balances finely-made on-track sequences with beautifully etched off-the-track ones.
While we are not privy to Shelby’s personal life, we are shown a fair bit of Miles’ home life. When the hot-headed Miles loses his temper in front of Peter, his reluctance to meet his son’s eyes speaks loud. His wife, Mollie (Caitriona Balfe), on the other hand, is more of a realist.
She does push him to pursue his dreams but keeps a firm hand on the hand-brake of his life just in case he steers too wide.
“Don’t make what you love and what you want a secret just because you think it makes me happy,” she says to a Miles who is torn between duties to his family and listening to his heart.
It is these moments that perfectly complement the technically-supreme race sequences. From Daytona to Sebring to Le Mans, every turn, every acceleration, every gear-shift is a visual and audio spectacle. In these portions, Marco Beltrami’s wonderful background score lets the revving of the engines take centrestage.
The buildup to Le Mans not just celebrates the driver, but gives a much-needed fillip to the profession of engineering. Listening to Shelby, Miles, and Phil (Ray McKinnon) talk about modifying the Ford GT 40 MK II to become a beast, makes us feel they are superheroes whose superpower is engineering. It is cathartic after years of ‘engineer jokes’.
When cars vroom past the finish line, though the cameras zoom in on the drivers, our eyes search for the engineers. We know they made it possible. We know they are the people who literally set the wheels in motion.
Certain films require a special kind of star power, especially one that has an engineer sharing the spotlight with the much-cooler racecar driver. Damon and Bale bring oodles of that stardom to Ford V Ferrari and makes us root for both Miles and Shelby.
Bale brings in the necessary chutzpah coupled with rare moments of vulnerability. Though Damon gets more talkie portions than action set-pieces, he matches Bale in every step and delivers an equally nuanced performance.
About six years back, we saw Rush, yet another racing film, and probably one of the best-ever in the genre. It may seem like a difficult standard to live up to. However, the man at the helm of Ford v Ferrari is James Mangold, someone who managed to set new standards in superhero films with Logan. Now, he has brought to life the much-publicised rivalry between Ford and Ferrari.
With Ford v Ferrari, Mangold, and his writing team of Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller, not just wonderfully documents the 1966 Le Mans, but makes a darn good film.
Talking to his son about being a racecar driver, Miles says, “Look out there. It is the perfect lap. Every gear shift is great, every corner is perfect. It is out there but no one knows it, and no one gets it.” The same can be said about a perfect film. Mangold’s Ford V Ferrari might not be perfect, but it is as close to a photo-finish as it gets.
Movie: Ford v Ferrari
Director: James Mangold
Cast: Christian Bale, Matt Damon