click to enlarge Ken Miles (Christian Bale) and Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) in Ford V Ferrari.
Ken Miles (Christian Bale) and Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) in Ford V Ferrari.

With all of its meticulously rendered, in-your-face, just-a-bit-too-loud racing sequences, at its core Ford v Ferrari is really nothing more than a buddy movie. That's not meant to be a backhanded compliment but speaks to the engine that drives this exceptionally engaging dive into automotive history, a look at how a personal slight led to the spending of millions of dollars and the development of the modern American sports car. To be sure, the desire to see these cars in action will get viewers to buy tickets but it's the human moments that will stick with them after the final credits roll.

The beginning of the 1960s was not a good time for the Ford Motor Company. Lacking flash or even any basic sense of style, the cars produced by the venerable manufacturer were not appealing to Baby Boomers who were now driving age and profits were falling. At the behest of his adviser Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) decides to make an offer to purchase Ferrari, the Italian company known for producing the best race cars in the world. Needless to say, negotiations break down soon after they start with the owner (Remo Girone) of the foreign entity referring to Ford's cars as "ugly" and the man himself as "fat."

This doesn't sit well with Ford, who sets out to beat Ferrari at his own game by assembling a crew of the best automotive minds to build a car that will win the 24 race at Le Mans, a contest his rival has won five years in a row. His first hire is Carrol Shelby (Matt Damon), a maverick automotive designer who's made inroads in engines design. In turn, he hires Ken Miles (Christian Bale) a driver who has no problems pushing himself and any car he might be driving to dangerous limits.

The relationship between the two men, at times antagonistic, at others fiercely loyal, is as compelling as the recounting of their efforts to build a world-class race car. The highs and lows of the process are laid out in detail, as Miles puts each prototype through its paces, cites everything that's wrong and sends all involved back to the lab. Mangold puts us in the driver's seat throughout, as well as placing cameras around the traveling cars to underscore the excitement the drivers experience and the dangers they court. It's thrilling stuff, especially during a scene in which Shelby takes Ford for an impromptu ride, forcefully driving home to the magnate just how dangerous what Miles does truly is.

As expected, Damon and Bale are very good here, the former finding ways to inject sly humor into the stoic Shelby, the later reveling in Miles broad nature. To be sure, the racing is exciting and the laughs genuine, but it's the quiet moments between the two in which they contemplate what they are facing or scenes between Miles and his son (Noah Jupe) that give the film its heart and remind us of the risks these two men are taking, both professionally and personally.

Director James Mangold (Walk the Line, Logan) is at the top of his game, keeping a sure hand on what could have been a sprawling, ungainly narrative, keeping his focus on the two mavericks at the film's center, never letting the viewer forget that the human element of the tale is what makes us care about all that occurs on the track and in the shop. Ford v Ferrari ends up delivering much more than expected, making our hearts not only race, but empathize with those on screen.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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    Ford v Ferrari

    PG-13 2 hr 32 min

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