‘Ford v Ferrari’ Overlooks the Best Part of the Racing Rivalry

Making excellent movies requires fine-tuned precision—three acts, perfectly paced editing, emotional beats that result in a satisfying, or at least cathartic, conclusion. Building capable cars requires the same craftsmanship—four wheels (or more), well-tuned aerodynamics, a full-powered engine. That oversimplifies things, admittedly, but the fact remains: A poorly engineered movie falls apart as quickly as a poorly engineered car. What a shame, then, that director James Mangold’s expertly crafted Ford v Ferrari leaves the automotive design off of the screen.

Ford v Ferrari, out today, recounts one of the great stories in motorsports. In the mid-1960s, Henry Ford II decided to burnish his company’s reputation by getting into racing. To jumpstart that effort, he tried to buy Ferrari, only to be rebuffed and insulted by Enzo Ferrari himself. Out for revenge, the grandson of America’s greatest automobile maker hired former racer-cum-engineer Carroll Shelby, played by Matt Damon, to do whatever was necessary to build a car that will defeat Ferrari at the world’s most prestigious race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Shelby brought in Ken Miles (Christian Bale), the best driver he knew, to help develop the car and race it. The result is the GT40, the loveliest Ford ever, which unseated Ferrari to take first, second, and third place at Le Mans in 1966 (then won again in 1967, 1968, and 1969).

In recounting the tale, Mangold (Logan) makes two hours and 20 minutes feel breezy, largely by packing it with more than enough fast-paced scenes to convey the insanity of 1960s racing, when cars easily topped 200 mph but had few of the safety protections that make today’s crashes more scary than serious. Bale and Damon have a slick, easy chemistry, and the hair and makeup department deserves an Oscar nod for Damon’s perm alone. Yet, as beautiful as the movie is, its oversights feel like a nice paint job with little under the hood.

To wit, Ford v Ferrari’s twin highlights are viewable in the trailer: When Shelby shows Hank the Deuce the power he’s crafting via a terrifying ride in his race car, pushing him to tears and convulsive laughter; and when Shelby and Miles fight like the middle-aged men they are, while Miles’ wife Mollie (Outlander’s Caitriona Balfe) lounges nearby with a magazine, then brings her boys sodas. Sadly, Balfe’s is the only female character with more than a line or two, and she swings, inexplicably, between being Cool Wife Who Loves to See Her Husband Race and Wet Blanket Who Wants Him Home and Alive.

Maybe that’s hard to avoid in a film focused on a world inhabited mostly by men, especially one that puts the odd-couple friendship between Miles and Shelby at its center. Where Shelby is a people pleaser, Miles makes clear his contempt for just about everybody, taking up the length of a diner booth as he warns his buddy that the Ford bureaucracy doesn’t take to people like them “because we’re different.” As such, they must battle not Ferrari, which is more plot catalyst than antagonist, but the Detroit apparatchiks who time and again meddle with a racing business they hardly understand. The drama here isn’t Ford v Ferrari. It’s Men v The Man (at Le Mans).

So when Josh Lucas’ king of smarm Leo Beebe (who in real life wasn’t nearly so bad) tells Shelby, with an egregious shoulder pat, to oust Miles, Shelby stands by his man. Miles is the best, he says, and winning requires the best. It’s here, in this critical moment, that Mangold’s film hits its greatest disconnect. The movie doesn’t link Miles’ cussedness to his talent behind the wheel, or explain why not being a Ford man makes him the man for this Ford. So the central drama—it has to be Miles, public image be damned—falls flat.

In reality, and in the movie, Ford swept the podium at Le Mans not because Miles outraced Ferrari but because the Italian cars all broke down and the Ford cars excelled. The true drama of the race was in the engineering, a subject to which Mangold paid scant attention. The thing that makes the 24 Hours of Le Mans so bananas is the endurance aspect, the bit that stretches back to the earliest days of auto racing, when the ability to keep a car running was just as award-worthy as the ability to make it go fast. Ferrari’s cars weren’t just good-looking and quick, they were feats of great engineering.

The making of the GT40 was a years-long effort that started with serious work by British engineer Eric Broadley. It involved using dynamometers to abuse engines until they blew, finding a fix, and doing it again. A man named Mose Nowland jetted between Detroit, North Carolina, and California, fixing leaks on the cars with trout fishing line just before they went to battle in France. Those stories, of the countless people who tinkered and innovated and made a new kind of machine, are the best part of these histories. But pitting Christian Bale and Matt Damon against unctuous men in suits is an easier formula than squeezing the drama out of a dyno.

So, by all means, go see Ford v Ferrari: It’s a fun movie that’s worth your time, especially if you care a whit about cars. But if you want to understand the true drama of the race, go home and investigate for yourself.

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