There are multiple reasons to be excited about Ford v Ferrari. Coming right after Lewis Hamilton’s F1 victory this season, the movie is directed by James Mangold and features, for the first time ever together, Hollywood powerhouses in their own right – Christian Bale and Matt Damon.
It might be easy to say ‘Bruce Wayne meets Jason Bourne’, but the truth is that their respective careers hold much more weight than playing just the billionaire superhero and master assassin, with both having aced a wide array of other roles that have redefined the boundaries of acting, coupled with sheer hard work and unflinching determination.
This week, they add another feather in their caps with Ford v Ferrari (also called Le Mans ’66), where Damon essays the role of American automotive designer and engineer Carroll Shelby, who is tasked by Ford with designing a car that can beat the legendary Ferrari racing team of that era in the endurance race tournament called Le Mans.
Bale plays racer Ken Miles, who teams up with Shelby and gets to race the Ford GT40 in the 1966 showdown with Ferrari at Le Mans.
Having premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in August, the movie received positive reviews from critics, who have lauded the performances of the lead actors as well as the race sequences. Ahead of the movie’s release in India next week, we find out how Bale and Damon got into the skin of their characters, and what they learnt about the motorsport culture of yore.
What did you know about your respective characters before going into this film?
Bale: I knew nothing about Ken Miles, and I think I’m probably in the same boat as most people on that. He’s very much an unsung hero of motor-racing. He was a very English man, from the Midlands in Britain.
Before racing, he was a military man who served in a tank unit. He was there, I think, D-Day plus two or three days after, then went across Europe.
He was there when they liberated Belsen. Then he became an absolute, pure, racer’s racer – very strong-minded, incredibly passionate about what he did. Within the motor-racing circuit,you hear many stories about him, about that race in ’66. They were all new to me.
Damon: Well, there had been different iterations of this project around for about 10 years, so I was familiar with the story.
But it wasn’t until I read this version with this group of people, like Jim and Christian, attached, that I got really sold.
Then I really started to watch documentaries about Shelby and read about him. I also talked to a lot of people because many people knew him socially – he cut quite a figure out here in LA! And put it this way, he was described to me, by many people, as a man who could sell you anything!
Did this movie give you a newfound respect for the limits and dangers that these drivers pushed themselves to back in the ’60s?
Bale: Absolutely. These guys were sitting on bombs. Literally, the doors in these cars were full of gas and that was a big burning danger. Also, back then, there were no real ambulance crews. There were many stories, horrendous stories, of people dying on the side of the road, from incidents that would be solved in 20 seconds nowadays. The safety just wasn’t there.
There was also an attitude of, ‘If you’re worried about safety, you shouldn’t be a racer.’ The huge difference nowadays is that pretty much any vehicle you get into, the strongest part of the car are the brakes. Whereas at that time, that wasn’t the case at all. These cars were rocket-ships going down the Mulsanne Straight on the Le Mans track at 230mph; without good brakes, not knowing if this thing was going to stop! You know, it was like – ‘Are the brakes going to overheat and just melt?!’
One of the movie’s key themes is of ‘art vs commerce’, ‘gut instinct vs data’, which speaks as much to the movie industry as it does to the motor-racing one, right?
Bale: Oh, completely. I think this is a transferrable story to every single industry. Whenever these wonderful opportunities present themselves for me to work with people who are real masters of what they do –whether that’s in motor-racing or boxing or whatever the discipline – at that level, it really does become therapy. Once you’ve gotten through the technical aspects of the discipline, it’s all a mind-game, as is everything in life. And it’s the same with the film industry.
They are very relatable industries, in terms of seeing so many talented people who never seem to get a break.
And the whole marketing machine; often that’s in complete opposition to what you’re trying to do in the work.
The need for selling. I think that’s not only transferrable to just the film industry but also to life in general. That’s what I hope people get from this film. Damon: Yeah, I mean, it’s just a one-to-one correlation, everywhere.
It’s the commerce and the creatives kind of coming together to do something. And that’s literally the world we live in – the movie business. So, there was a lot of joking around on set about that. Because there are a lot of undeniable similarities.