For James Mangold’s sterling sports film, take your thesaurus toolbox and dump out all the synonym wrenches for the word “hubris.” This is a thrilling race of arrogance as much as it is one of high-performance automobiles. The acts of vanity, audacity, chutzpah, conceit, cockiness, insolence, nerve, pomposity, and exceptionalism fill every metallic and non-metallic element. All of this tuned-up and torqued testosterone makes for one hell of an entertaining show.
On a scale far more historical and less fantastical than the last prominent movie to put a V. battle in its title, Ford V. Ferrari highlights the team assembled by Ford Motor Company to climb above the redneck derbies of NASCAR and build a new world-class racecar worthy of ending Ferrari’s 1960s dominance at the world’s most illustrious and grueling automobile race: the 24 Hours of Le Mans. There are three levels to this endeavor: owner, designer, and driver. All three parties flex their manner of hubris.
The headline-seeking desire to enter the international race scene comes from the wounded pride and deep pockets of “The Deuce” and CEO Henry Ford II, embodied with bluster and bitterness by Tracy Letts. Throwing money at a titillating marketing pitch for sexier cars from talented underling (and future car czar himself) Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) and backed by his shrewd senior VP Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), Henry is embarrassingly rebuffed from a financial takeover of Enzo Ferarri’s famed sports car company as a way to emulate prestige his domestic assembly line can’t match. Pissed enough to get back at Ferrari, the irritable magnate demands to beat the old tycoon at his own supremacy on the raceways. Make no mistake. The suits are the villains here with the needling and oppressive corporate control.
Renowned custom car entrepreneur Carroll Shelby, played by Matt Damon, is swagger built by determination. Shelby won the 1959 Le Man event as a driver only to be forced into retirement with a bad heart valve. He now lives vicariously through his business dealings and front race teams. When Carroll is enlisted (and paid quite handsomely to do so) by Ford to get them to win in France, he brings Stetson-topped confidence and gum-chomping spirit on top of his automotive acuity.
Shelby knows the only driver he completely trusts with the prowess to take the wheel of an experimental deathtrap is the “limey prick” Ken Miles, played by the co-headlining Oscar winner Christian Bale. Supported by a stalwart wife (Caitriona Balfe of TV’s Outlander) and idolizing son (Noah Jupo of Suburbicon and A Quiet Place) while struggling as an L.A. mechanic between racing gigs, Ken lives for the wrench time and the feel of the power at the wheel. He has the hot-blooded recklessness and spry savvy to go further than anyone else.
The vaunted vessels for the fuel-injection fracas are the beastly cars themselves being produced for peak perfection. Ford V. Ferrari impressively uses nearly all practical effects and reproductions of the actual racers from that era, making this a drool-worthy and jaw-dropping movie for exotic car lovers. Capturing their performance to this level of authenticity is quite a feat for second unit director Darrin Prescott (the stunt coordinator of Baby Driver and Drive) and stunt coordinator Robert Nagle. The guttural growls of all the horsepower fill a massive sound mix that easily overwhelms the squabbling men when necessary.
Matt Damon may really only be doing an extended version of his Matthew McConaughey impressions from his old David Letterman talk show couch visits, but his composure and confidence fits the leading need. He is easy to root for stepping to music by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders that is almost folksy to match the American cowboy at work. It’s a distinctive tone choice different than if this movie was made 30 years ago with a rousing Bill Conti score or 40 years ago with Lalo Schifrin bossa nova tingle. Like the character he plays, Christian Bale does nothing half-ass. Introduced in a scene dropping the burn “drive it like you mean it, not like a school teacher,” his complete commitment to the tenacity becomes quickly vibrant and endearing, turning him the heart and soul of the show.
The sheer energy of this movie has knockout power. See Ford V. Ferrari on the loudest screen you can find, because you’re going to wish you had a helmet and a steering wheel of your own. Don’t crush your armrest or cup holder from the velocity. James Mangold has made a crowdpleaser that counts as a buddy movie and sports flick with cajones and more compassion than one would expect from the brawn in play. At every turn, though, it’s all about how people look winning.
This pissing contest has a powertrain and it is each competing party’s impetuosity and conceit to be the victor which warps their behavior and motivations. The proverbial “will to win” is a well-worn adage and character trait that fills context-less parables about potential and excellence by Confucius and endless bulletin board quotes covering preparation and spirit from famed college and professional sports coaches like Bear Bryant, Bobby Knight, and Vince Lombardi. In Ford V. Ferrari, Ken Miles and Carroll Shelby, other than their willingness to take a paycheck, are portrayed to have the genuine drive. They match this Tony Robbins-level motivational poetry citation from writer Berton Braley:
If you want a thing bad enough
To go out and fight for it,
Work day and night for it,
Give up your time and your peace and
Your sleep for it
If only desire of it
Makes you quite mad enough
Never to tire of it,
Makes you hold all other things tawdry
And cheap for it
If life seems all empty and useless without it
And all that you scheme and you dream is about it,
If gladly you’ll sweat for it,
Fret for it, Plan for it,
Lose all your terror of God or man for it,
If you’ll simply go after that thing that you want.
With all your capacity,
Strength and sagacity,
Faith, hope and confidence, stern pertinacity,
If neither cold poverty, famished and gaunt,
Nor sickness nor pain
Of body or brain
Can turn you away from the thing that you want,
If dogged and grim you besiege and beset it,
You’ll get it!