Matt Damon and Christian Bale star in Mangold’s sports drama based on true events between Ford motorsport and Ferrari, and Ford’s hope of giving Enzo “old man” Ferrari a taste of his own medicine, by winning the 24 hours of Le Mans.
In one of the most important sequences, that throws light on the high risks of motorsport racing, however romanticised by a race car driver, Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) visits the American Le Mans winner, turned engineer Carol Shelby (Matt Damon) at his garage asking him how much does it cost to win at Le Mans. To which Shelby replies, “money can’t buy everything”. We realise this statement makes more sense than ever when a former and only American champion tells Leo about the gruesome challenge, that is Le Man, and how even with all the risks involved, he would do anything to get in that car again. In the 1960s, the cars were going at over 200 miles per hour, on the straights, that was the level of treacherous risk that motorsport racers took, calling it adrenaline rush. This sets tone for the rest of the film which relies on the fact that it was passionate individuals with love for racing and engineering, that made them achieve this milestone.
Lee Iacocca, Ford executive and future automotive giant, puts forward a plan of beating Ferrari at Le Mans, which would be good for Ford’s image. He further tells Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), that consumer tastes are changing and younger blood would want to buy vehicles associated with speed. This inciting incident paved way for what was not just a battle between Ford v/s Ferrari anymore, but for Ford II, America’s battle on European soil.
Ford, an old-school autocrat, is persuaded by this idea after the deal to take over Ferrari goes south, thanks to its proud owner Enzo Ferrari, who strikes a deal with Fiat. Iaccoca lobbies with the Ford heir to commission automotive designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) to turn the Ford GT40 into a vehicle that will give Ferrari serious competition at Le Mans. Thus, begins the contest, not just between the American giants and its Italian counterpart, but also internal ego clashes among males and mean machines.
Shelby hires Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a war hero, mechanic, but most of all, a poetically chaotic race car driver to build the GT40, and also race it at Le Mans. Miles is both Shelby’s trump card and a thorn in just about everyone’s flesh, his own included. “He’s difficult but good,” Shelby assures Ford in a massive double understatement. Bale is tailor-made for this role, who pulls it off with sheer ease and bravado. Miles in uncompromising, unfiltered and all those rebellious qualities that don’t make him the ideal ‘poster boy’ for Ford motorsport according to Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas). But according to Shelby, and rightly so, there is no man to win the Le Mans in the GT40, other than Ken Miles.
While the film’s first half establishes these bonds and dynamics through a political roller coaster, Mangold uses race sequences to carry on the plot forward. At that time, we notice, that these cinematic race scenes at Daytona, or Miles burning the tyres and having his breaks failing during testing metaphorically also work for character arcs in the film. With each lap, one can see the transitional changes the characters go through. From Miles talking to his car, to Shelby handlings things his way. But the race is not over, till that checkered flag is out.
Mangold stuffs the narrative so overwhelmingly that till you reach the final chapter; you are rooting for Miles to win that race, and in the fashion, he tells his son Peter (Noah Jupe) about it. The perfect lap, with the perfect corner, turns, right amount of breaking and full-throttle on the straights, a flat 3-and-a-half-minute lap. The climatic sequence of the 24-hour race at Le Mans is so drawn-out and filled with obstacles, it feels as though it’s unfolding in real-time, also credits to the director for shooting these sequences in real-time overusing VFX.
The stellar cast and supporting cast elevate an already amazing event in the history of motorsport racing, by providing performances that you will not forget for a while. Caitriona Balfe plays Mollie Miles, wife of Ken, who plays this ever so supportive wife of a rather eccentric race car driver. One of my personal favourite scenes from the movie are when Mollie gives Ken a taste of his own medicine by revving the car into high speed turns when he makes a unilateral joint decision without telling her. Noah Jupe plays an adorable Peter Miles and shares one of the most endearing father-son camaraderies on-screen with Bale.
Ford v/s Ferrari is more than just a motorsport drama between two automobile giants. It’s a story about the friendship between Shelby and Miles, the chaotic harmony between them and the belief that one man’s goal will be fulfilled by the other. Mangold, towards the end, tells us, that make the journey worth its while because then you have won even before the race as started. With a screen time of 154 minutes, needless to say, this film is on par with another film from the same genre, Rush (2013), based on the Hunt-Lauda rivalry.