★★★★ - EMPIRE
- In the mid-’60s, Ferrari is dominating the racing world, effortlessly winning prize after prize. So Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) orders his underlings to construct a car that will have Ferrari drivers choking on fumes. Enter Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and Ken Miles (Christian Bale), two mavericks who might just be able to pull it off.
[Ford v Ferrari] may look like a film about slick motors and the handsome dudes who drive them. And it is that. But it’s also, in a roundabout way, a film about filmmaking. James Mangold, the veteran director who has had his fair share of tangles with studio overseers — he has referred to the messy, interfered-with final act of The Wolverine as “a capitulation” — is here dealing with a dynamic with which he’s all too familiar. Hero mechanics Ken Miles (Bale) and Carroll Shelby (Damon) are the creatives, pouring their hearts and souls into an expensive endeavour that might well crash and burn (much like, say, a superhero movie about a knife-knuckled mutant). The unctuous, well-dressed executives of the Ford Motor Company, looking on with pursed lips and urging the taking of the safest route, are obvious stand-ins for studio execs.
As for Henry Ford II, played to scene-stealing effect by Letts, well, he’s only a cigar and a copy of Variety away from a Hollywood mogul, taking a gamble and hoping to trounce his rival across town. The parallels even sometimes leach into the dialogue — “James Bond does not drive a Ford, sir,” offers one minion during a board meeting; “That’s because he’s a degenerate!” Ford roars back.
This is, then, despite appearances, a most personal project. Which may explain why it works so damn well. While the film is long, it rips along at extreme velocity — and not just when it’s on the racetrack — thanks to a panoply of colourful, entertaining characters. The two at the centre of the action are a study in contrasts. Bale’s Miles (a name that might be considered on-the-nose were this tale not based on real life) is the maverick, a mouthy grease-monkey who throws wrenches, wears oil-stained white T-shirts, permanently grips a sloshing mug of tea and occasionally yells, “Pillock!” (“He’s difficult but good,” remarks an onlooker, helpfully, after one of his outbursts.) Damon’s Shelby is the charmer, a slick playboy in black threads and a cowboy hat who throws zero wrenches, but cares every bit as much about the results of the big race. The latter is less well-defined — Shelby appears to have no family or personal life, though he does have a stuffed armadillo in his office — but together the two stars are massively watchable, bickering and bantering as their friendship slowly forms, and obsessing over how to make a $9 million car move at rocket-speed without exploding into flames.
Mangold confidently and crisply builds the high stakes around them. Like the Emperor in Star Wars, Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) is a shadowy presence, looking on from the fringes of the film and pumping money into the Ferrari squad with cool arrogance (a sequence where a corporate merger is attempted at Ferrari HQ is drily hilarious). The Ford team, unlikely underdogs given the equally extreme wealth on display, are supervised by one bureaucrat who’s slick and Don Draper-esque (Jon Bernthal), and another who’s an oily dick (Josh Lucas, smarmy and terrific). A mid-1960s corporate rivalry may not seem like the stuff of fist-pumping, crowd-pleasing cinema, yet the battle is sketched with such élan, all high-gloss surfaces, scotch-swilling intrigue and rat-a-tat dialogue, that it’s impossible not to be drawn in.
And then there’s the driving. The entire final act is devoted to Le Mans, a race that is not easy to depict on film, given it lasts 24 hours and involves endless laps. But by the time Mangold gets there, he’s done such a cracking job of establishing the slim odds of this automotive David beating Ferrari’s swarm of curvy, raspberry-red Goliaths that it’s gripping from the first burst of throttle, and remains so even when Miles stops for a mug of PG Tips. [Ford v Ferrari] doesn’t do anything particularly revolutionary: it hews to a classic sports-movie structure that’s been tried and tested in everything from Rocky to Hoosiers, while the single major female character, Miles’ wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe), doesn’t get much to do except occasionally gripe about his workload. But what the film does it does extraordinarily well. Like his two protagonists on screen, Mangold knows how to go under the hood of a vehicle with a spanner — and he’s made this one fly.
Even if you’re not a motorhead, chances are you’ll be thrilled by this high-velocity bromance, powered by zesty acting and Mangold’s meticulous direction.