James Mangold began his career in the directing chair with a small-scale independent film. He now operates entirely within the Hollywood system, all while still managing to keep making the kind of movies for adults the studios have otherwise abandoned. His new film, Ford v Ferrari, feels like some kind of last stand for grown-up middlebrow cinema. Throughout his career Mangold has made a fanciful rom-com, a cop thriller, a western, a music biopic and even a couple of X-Men movies that felt more beholden to old Hollywood genres than the comic-book formula. And now he’s directed a star-studded two-and-a-half-hour period drama about racecars and the men who design and race them. And while it has its struggles, Mangold re-engineers one of his unfussy studio throwbacks into a heaping Dad Movie event.
The film co-centers on Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a former race car driver and 1959 Twenty-Four Hours of Le Mans winner who’s soaked in Texas swagger. After being sidelined from his career due to a heart condition, Shelby is approached by Lee Iaococca (Jon Bernthal) and Henry Ford II (a scenery-chewing Tracy Letts) of Ford Motor Company with an idea: Ford is looking to sell more cars to younger drivers by competing against Ferrari at the Twenty-Four Hours of Le Mans, and they hope their victory will make their cars edgy enough for younger consumers. Shelby is tasked with helping build and race the new car, but to do so he reaches out to an old friend. That old friend is Ken Miles (Christian Bale), an arrogant, self-assured yet extremely talented driver and builder himself with a knack for ignoring orders and doing his own thing. Shelby enlists Miles to help build the Ford race car, and after some serious back-and-forth, Miles agrees. Together the two battle meddling Ford executives and Ferrari itself to try and win Le Mans.
Given a mere ninety days to construct a vehicle that can upstage Ferrari’s sturdy vastly developed designs. It doesn’t take Shelby much to convince Miles, who balances his racing career with being a mechanic and leading an unstable middle-class family life with his wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) and son Peter (Noah Jupe), to sign on to the challenge. Interestingly Bale never emphasizes Ken’s insufferable genius side, even if he’s introduced in a scene that begins with him slagging off a car inspector and ends with him slinging a wrench at Shelby. And while the movie quickly establishes his aforementioned family life, Bale continually underplays his hotshot status. This is Bale’s most purely charming role in years, with notes of his work from The Big Short and a pinch of The Fighter. Bale makes it clear that while Ken can be disagreeable, he comes about it honestly. A corporate drone describes him as resembling a beatnik, but he looks more like a dad on his day off, favoring sweatshirts, pajama pants and a slight stoop in his posture.
As usual, Damon takes the less showier part, but Ford v Ferrari gives him plenty to do as he feuds with Miles and various Ford higher-ups. Together, Bale and Damon are such magnetic onscreen figures that it doesn’t take much to inject their various arguments, smarmy asides and high-stakes bets with plenty of intrigue. They forge an odd-couple chemistry that continually finds them trading barbs and scheming in equal measures. (One standout scene finds them coming to blows outside Miles’ house, while Miles’ wife, Mollie, sits with a magazine and waits for them to fight it out.) But for a movie called Ford v Ferrari it’s hard to imagine it working without some stellar action on the racetrack, and Ford v Ferrari delivers in that. Mangold dynamically shoots the racing scenes, capturing plenty of the action through close-ups of Bale, inside the zooming cars, and Damon, watching from the sidelines. The sense of geography in Mangold’s direction is pretty flawless, and the roaring sound design of the engines, tires and speedway by Donald Sylvester is Oscar-worthy. And along with Phedon Papamichael’s kinetic cinematography and the breezy, zestful editing by Michael McCusker and Andrew Buckland, Ford v Ferrari‘s energy is consistently off and running.
But given the story it’s telling and the long runtime, Ford v Ferrari has its quieter moments that the film sits with and it helps add some heft (even though parts are still underdeveloped). The central conflict needs that time also, to accelerate into something worth investing into. Ultimately, when we arrive at the finale race we begin to enter the sort of sports-movie tropes as one might expect, following those beats to satisfying effect. But once it gets there, however, it starts to head right into a rushed climax that underserves its characters and their obsession, reducing it to the sort of emotional shorthand that these kinds of stories have on autopilot. But, it’s before then where the movie delivers the pure thrill of the racetrack, it’s a feeling where everything seems to slow down. Early on Shelby describes that feeling as, “where everything fades and all that’s left is a body moving through space and time.” It’s a feeling, a tense passion that races through every second of this film. There’s also a sense of satisfaction seen with Shelby and Miles, as they embark in meaningful, enjoyable work while maneuvering around the limitations of an unfeeling corporate world. As he sets himself within the confines of the resettling studio system, this just might be Mangold’s most personal film to date. Though Ford v Ferrari may hit some bumps in the road, it continually delivers rushing thrills and finds a magnetic duo in Damon and Bale to race you through it all.