On the surface of things, this is the story of a rivalry between two car manufacturers, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) and Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone). It’s a battle between two captains of industry, fought out on the circuit of the toughest endurance race in the world held over 24 hours at Le Mans in France. The rivalry begins when Ford’s offer to buy Ferrari, dreamt up by Vice President Lee Iacocca (Jon Berthal) is scuppered by a counter deal Ferrari makes with Fiat. In response to the insult, Ford vows to build a car to take away Ferrari’s Le Mans crown.
Dig a little deeper, though, and it’s a story of a firm but sometimes fraught friendship between former La Mans champion Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and hot-headed driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale). It’s a finely written and masterfully executed relationship built on a combination of exasperation with each other tempered by respect and a belief in their abilities to build and drive a car that can do things everybody else thinks to be impossible.
Dig deeper still and this is really a story about Miles and his obsession with exploring the limits of what a man and machine in harmony can achieve. It is also his search for himself; to discover who the man behind the wheel really is – not just the driver, but the husband, the father and the son. Bale is outstanding as Miles. It’s a pitch-perfect performance that is inspiring and heart breaking in equal measure, but it’s also a performance that is elevated by the talent surrounding him. As his wife, Mollie, Catriona Balfe finds a rare place between her fears and frustrations and her belief that her husband must pursue this dream at all costs. More commonly in sporting films about the male obsession and drive to excel, it is the marriage that falls foul as collateral damage. Not so, here. They’re a team, and when Miles decides to give it all away and get a real job for the sake of his family, it’s Mollie who convinces him that he must persist. And it’s not just the marriage that gives him strength, it’s the family with a sweet performance by Noah Jupe as Peter, their son, who idolises his father but not to the exclusion of his mother. It’s a neat balancing act pulled off with humour and heart.
And then of course, there’s Damon who’s in fine form as the champion forced to retire by a heart condition who discovers a talent for designing race cars that comes from his instinct as a driver rather than from a commercial imperative. He walks a precarious line between the corporate world as embodied by both Ford and his Senior Vice President Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) and the world of his colleagues and friends including not just Miles, but second-in-command Phil Remington (a tender performance by Ray McKinnon). If there’s a false note in this film, it’s in Lucas’ performance as the arrogant and self-serving Beebe who continually rides roughshod over Shelby’s advice for his own and self-aggrandisement. It’s a less subtle performance than the rest of the cast, played with more villainy than is necessary to make the point. Letts, on the other hand, is terrific as the ‘old man’ who harkens back to the days of his grandfather Henry and is driven more by desire to get back at Ferrari than he is by a love for innovation. But he’s not without heart and the scene where Shelby takes him in their proto-type race car and changes his mind about things is, for me at least, one of the most memorable of the year.
So, what holds all this together and draws such exceptional performances in the telling of this story. Well, for a start the screenplay by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller is a cracker. Yes, they have a pretty exciting and dynamic real-life story to work from, but this is no museum piece or faux-doco-biopic. It’s well paced and underscored by deftly realised emotions that underpin every bit of action in the story. Then there’s the casting by Ronna Kress that pulls together an ensemble of great actors to bring that screenplay to life. But, of course, at the centre of all these elements is director James Mangold who does here for the car racing movie what he did for the superhero movie with Logan (2017); elevates the film above the surface of the story and the conventions of the genre into something that is more deeply embedded in the nature of human relationships, especially those under extraordinary pressure. That doesn’t mean that he ignores the nuts and bolts of the action on the racetrack. The driving sequences are edge-of-the-seat, heart pounding exhilaration shot like an action thriller car chase and made as real as possible by Bale’s ability to make us believe that it’s really him behind the wheel. Maybe the film goes a couple of scenes too long? There’s a lovely moment near the end with Shelby and Miles walking off together down the Le Mans racetrack like Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains beginning their beautiful friendship at the end of Casablanca (1942). But this film is based on a true story and there’s more to tell after that touching moment, even if it means that poignant moment together becomes a false ending. Nevertheless, for me, Ford v Ferrari is still one of the best films of the year and places James Mangold and Christian Bale as the ones to watch for whatever they do next. Who knows, it may even change my mind about car racing movies.