You won’t find many adults on the planet who are less of a gearhead than yours truly. I live in New York specifically because I don’t drive. I gave up on learning after five lessons, one of which saw a cop car behind me (I can’t say I got “pulled over” because what I did was slam on the breaks in the middle of the road and just remain petrified). Also, I crashed a Power Wheel when I was three and a go-cart when I was fifteen. Though I must say that I am pretty good at not crashing bumper cars. The point is that the subject matter of “Ford v Ferrari” is very foreign to me. You may feel differently if you can sympathize with the adrenaline rush of pushing a racecar to its limit in a battle for automotive world dominance. Me, I can sympathize with driver Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) seemingly losing confidence in his racing ability because the track is wet.
The year is 1963 and both the Ford Motor Company and Ferrari are facing financial hardships. I would point out to Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) that angrily shutting down his factory’s famed assembly lines and chewing out blameless employees is not a step toward improvement. Ford VP Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) convinces Ford to try to buy Ferrari, but Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) rejects the deal, complete with personal insults toward Ford. Ford decides he wants to crush Ferrari by having a Ford car win the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans auto race.
At the top of the list to construct the car is former Le Mans winner Shelby, but way down the list of preferred drivers is Shelby’s friend Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Miles and his wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) are in financial trouble of their own, and Ken may have to quit racing, which is his passion but doesn’t pay the bills. It’s not that Miles isn’t a talented driver – he’s arguably the best in the world – but he’s an outspoken hothead who butts heads with just about every Ford executive, especially Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas). Other drivers are sent to Le Mans instead, but Ford performs dismally. Finally, in 1966, Ford agrees to send Miles to Le Mans, but only after Shelby puts his entire manufacturing company on the line if Miles doesn’t win that year’s 24 Hours at Daytona.
The movie of course climaxes at Le Mans, and when Ford is actually racing against Ferrari, the spectacle lives up to the hype. There’s a real sense of danger and consequence for any mistakes. Crashes are hair-raising and the movie is at least going to be in the conversation for sounds effects Oscars. But Ferrari turns out to not quite be the opponent it’s been made out to be. Ford’s toughest opponent in this movie turns out to be… Ford itself. For some reason, Henry Ford II keeps trusting himself and the boneheaded Beebe to make decisions that consummate professionals Shelby and Miles should be making. A certain last-minute decision is the very antithesis of sports competition, and heck, capitalism.
The human drama in “Ford v Ferrari” is compelling thanks to some fine performances by the stacked cast, but the storyline is completely typical of a sports movie that involves an underdog and/or a comeback. The race scenes are exciting enough during broad strokes like overtaking, finishing, crashes and fires, though I will confess that I was lost on many of the finer points of both mechanics and driving. I certainly won’t say that this is a “bad” movie, but I think it’s a failure on some level that I didn’t care about auto racing going in and I didn’t care about it coming out.
“Ford v Ferrari” is rated PG-13 for some language and peril. Its running time is 152 minutes.
Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.