In the 1960s one car was dominant in the European racing circuit, with a stranglehold over the prestigious Le Mans 24 hour race – Ferrari.
To boost a falling reputation, and sales, The Ford Motor Company seeks to acquire the prestigious company, but when their offer is rudely rebutted, Ford instead decides to beat Ferrari at their own game. To do this they acquire the help of automotive designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), but a car is only half of the equation. It needs someone that understands the fine nuances of the vehicle and is capable of pushing it to the limit through the gruelling endurance race. Ken Miles (Christian Bale) is such a driver, but his explosive temper and prickly disposition may not make him the best fit for the image-conscious Ford.
Ford v Ferrari dwells in that intersection between man, machine and sport. That perfect creation and those talented individuals that can force a car around a track at breakneck speeds, without burning out the engine, or catastrophically losing control of the vehicle. Miles gives us a clear rundown of the track, a precise verbal map of the exacting process it takes to master every turn and straight of the track, to complete the perfect lap in three and a half minutes. It’s a skilled and meticulous procedure, that then needs to be repeated for the next 24 hours. Ford v Ferrari captures that build-up, through the design of the machine and the training of the driver, and the pay off for audiences in its delivery of the Le Mans race in its full octane glory.
The rest is a fairly run of the mill thematic for a sports film: a maverick underdog takes on an arrogant established champion at their own game. On face value, this is how the film plays out. However, if you look at it, it’s really a case of Goliath crushing David, as the giant industrialised Ford company takes on the master-crafted Ferrari to muscle into the niche the smaller firm has carved out for itself. The fact that the film doesn’t feel like that is due to its focus on Shelby and Miles, the dis-functionality of the corporate politics playing out within the monolithic company (thanks to Josh Lucas conveying a level of condescending arrogance normally reserved for the rich kid in a John Hughes’ film), and the sheer likeability of Bale and Damon. It’s a trick, but a well-executed one.
Both Bale and Damon seem to be aiming at Oscar glory here. Although it’s unlikely either will achieve a golden statue for this, both put in fairly solid turns. Bale gives a characterful performance sporting an English accent (possibly closer to his natural accent, but he’s become such a chameleon over time, it’s hard to say) and an abrasive personality. Damon seems more like casting to type and is a perfect fit for the straight-talking, entrepreneurial Shelby, just effecting a little drawl. Together they have extraordinary chemistry, as a pair of mavericks captured by the notion of speed, and with an innate understanding of the art of racing.
A slickly produced bit of racing nostalgia, Ford v Ferrari, captures both the era and the excitement of the event well.