The most impressive feat that the filmmakers accomplish in Ford v. Ferrari is to turn one of the largest corporations in American history into an underdog. Director James Mangold and screenwriters Jason Keller and Jez and John-Henry Butterworth set up iconic car manufacturer Ford as the scrappy upstart in contrast to high-end Italian outfit Ferrari. With sales sagging in the early 1960s, Ford CEO Henry Ford II (Tracey Letts) is looking for a way to shake up the company’s stodgy image, and marketing executive Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) suggests designing a race car that can challenge the Ferrari dynasty at the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans event in France.
The Ford executives are not exactly characters worth rooting for, and the movie focuses mainly on the racing mavericks they hired to achieve their goal. Retired driver and pioneering car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) heads up the team, and he insists on recruiting ornery and sometimes boorish British driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale), who frequently clashes with the buttoned-down Ford brass. Thus the story becomes about these brash rule-breakers challenging the status quo, not about one wealthy mega-corporation defeating another wealthy, somewhat smaller corporation (the movie opens with Ferrari’s purchase by European automotive conglomerate Fiat).
The movie follows the sports-movie template pretty closely, as Shelby and his team face a series of setbacks (including engineering challenges, impossible deadlines, and corporate meddling) on their road to inevitable victory. Although the two-and-a-half-hour movie drags the story out for too long, there are plenty of entertaining scenes along the way, including some exciting and technically impressive racing sequences. Damon and Bale have strong chemistry as old friends Shelby and Miles, who’ve both had to make compromises in pursuing their racing dreams. Sporting a drawl that sounds a bit like a Tommy Lee Jones impression, Damon captures Shelby’s laid-back Southern charm (which can quickly turn to ferocity), and Bale puts on a working-class English accent that allows him to say things like “Bloody ’ell!” a lot.
Josh Lucas is saddled with the one-dimensional role of the disapproving midlevel executive (even his haircut is smarmy), and Outlander’s Caitriona Balfe does what she can with the stock role of Miles’ worried wife. The primary character dynamic, though, is the longstanding friendship between Shelby and Miles, who know exactly how far they can push each other to get the results they need. There’s enough macho posturing here that the central competition might as well be an actual dick-measuring contest.
But Mangold presents it in a mostly genial way that’s about the wonder of human achievement more than the petty rivalries between men. The movie is slick and crowd-pleasing, a very American story of capitalist-driven ingenuity, and it rarely goes beyond its surface pleasures. Michael Mann, who’s credited as a producer, was working on his own film about Ferrari for years, and his version of this story would probably delve deeper, deconstructing the impulses that drive men like Shelby and Miles to put their lives on the line for speed records. Mangold is mostly just interested in fast cars and come-from-behind victories, and that’s enough to keep things moving for most of the time, even if they don’t linger past the finish line.