The focus of “Ford v Ferrari” is the development and construction of the Ford GT40, a car that was the direct result of an automobile executive not getting what he wanted. In the late 1950s, the Ford Motor Company had settled into the production of cars that were as boring as they were reliable. Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) decided that the way to spice up his company’s reputation — a reputation that might be dismissed with the phrase “OK boomer” today — was to buy the company some cool. After extensive negotiations with the Italian sports car magnate Enzo Ferrari, the deal was suddenly scuttled, leaving the Ford company without a racecar and its CEO with a desire to do anything to beat the guy who left him hanging.
Ford turns to Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a former racecar driver who now designs and builds cars. Carroll, in turn, brings in Ken Miles (Christian Bale), an English driver with a lead foot and a hot head. Their goal is to trounce Ferrari every chance they get, but the real prize is winning the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans race.
“Ford v Ferrari” spends less time on the track than one might expect; Carroll and Ken have to continually fight Henry Ford II and his team of white-collar sycophants to get the freedom to innovate. Once they get the clearance to do what they need to do — largely because of a young Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) — the movie is really off to the races.
Damon and Bale have a quick and easy chemistry; Carroll’s cool Texas swagger is a nice counterpoint to Ken’s more frenetic energy. Even when the two are butting heads — occasionally literally — there’s an underlying sense of respect and even affection between them. Unfortunately, their characters are the only major ones who have any real depth. As Ken’s wife Mollie, Caitriona Balfe has very little to do other than deliver exposition (or listen to someone else deliver it). It’s easy to guess that the only reason Mollie exists is to add a woman to the nearly all-male cast.
Josh Lucas has even less to work with as a Ford executive who interferes with Carroll and Ken at nearly every turn, though with no discernible reason. Screenwriters Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller must have thought their story needed a villain, forgetting that the GT40’s real nemesis was the laws of physics. In fact, a lot of the script could be trimmed: At two and a half hours, the movie could do with a little less rhapsodizing about the magic of driving and a lot more actual driving.
About the driving — oh, the driving. Director James Mangold shows that these races are not just about being the fastest car on the track; they’re chess matches played with one-ton pieces of metal flying at 200 mph. Mangold is at his best when he takes the audience into the GT40’s cramped cockpit, where the roar of the engine, combined with Bale’s taut face — effective even when mostly covered by a helmet — creates an experience as intense as any action sequence. He uses cutaways just as effectively, giving viewers a chance to catch their breath and lower their heart rate before revving it again.
While gear heads may have a deeper appreciation for the discussion of schematics and pistons and tie rods, those who politely nod when their mechanic tells them there’s something wrong with their car’s flux capacitor will find plenty with which to engage here. The car takes center stage, but the real story is one of relationships: the one between Carroll and Ken, and the one between each man and the sport they love. Even moviegoers who can’t drive a stick shift will find “Ford v Ferrari” a thrilling ride.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains some strong language and peril. 152 minutes.