Matt Damon plays Carroll Shelby, a successful driver who gave up the track due to heart issues, and who now works behind the scenes in motorsports. This puts him on the radar of Ford, in the midst of a monumental sales slump, with boss Henry Ford II (a commanding Tracy Letts, who brings the film to life whenever he’s on screen) desperately searching for a way to rejuvenate his company.
For Ford’s marketing team – headed up by Jon Bernthal’s Lee Iacocca – Ferrari represents victory and success, so they target the iconic Le Mans race, with plans to defeat the seemingly unbeatable Italian team. They believe Shelby is the man for the job, asking him to assemble his own team of engineers and drivers, and to build the fastest car in the world, all in the space of 90 days.
Shelby turns to Ken Miles, a complicated, argumentative guy who scares off sponsors, and rarely listens to team orders. But Miles is a brilliant driver, coming off the back of wins at Daytona and Sebring, meaning that in 1966 he could potentially pull off the ultimate motorsports hat-trick.
His woefully underwritten wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) – there to worry, nag and support as required – doesn’t want him to enter the dangerous arena of Le Mans. But the pair have money troubles of their own, and the prospect of a huge payday, as well as the opportunity to write his name in history, proves too tempting for Ken, and he accepts the gig.
Watch the trailer for Ford v Ferrari below:
What follows is a pretty conventional sports movie. Miles is the maverick pushing the car to its limits while striving for the perfect lap. Leo Beebe (a deliciously slimy Josh Lucas) is the Ford VP who wants someone more malleable in the hot seat: “We need a Ford-type driver in a Ford car – that’s the Ford way,” he tells his boss after another Ken Miles outburst. And Shelby is caught in the middle, appeasing the suits at head office while at the same time trying to control his fiery friend.
Trouble is, it’s all so very predictable. Miles loses his seat, but you don’t think for a second that he won’t win it back. Miles is losing the race, but you don’t for a second think he won’t pull it back. What these men achieved, in such a short space of time, was nothing short of miraculous. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into an engaging story, and for much of its punishing run-time, Ford v Ferrari fails to get out of third gear.
That said, the racing scenes are shot with real energy and vigor, director James Mangold and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael putting you in the Ford, then on the track, then between the cars, making for some exhilarating driving sequences. But Le Mans is 24 hours of drivers speeding in circles, which doesn’t make for exciting cinema. And while the filmmakers try to inject some suspense into the race’s bizarre climax, the chequered flag arrives with a whimper rather than a bang.
Of the leads, Damon has little to do as Shelby aside from be likably determined, which he achieves without breaking a sweat. Bale has the more showy role as Miles, and he’s convincing as a genius behind the wheel, and a bit of a clown when not. But whether its Bale’s fault, or down to the script by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller, we never truly get a sense of what makes Ken Miles tick, nor what drives him to keep putting his life on the line for the sake of a race.