Film Review: ‘Ford v Ferrari’
I walked into my local theater’s showing of Ford v Ferrari with modest expectations. On the one hand, it was directed by the same man behind the excellent Logan, featured not one but two Academy Award-winning actors in Christian Bale and Matt Damon, and had a not-insignificant budget of just under $100 million. All of this would have suggested I was in for a good time.
On the other hand, it was a racing movie — and Hollywood tends to misrepresent racing in ways that can be hard to overlook for people familiar with the real thing.
But, having walked in with modest expectations, I came out impressed. So let’s talk about Ford v Ferrari, a movie about the rivalry between two automotive giants that culminated in the famous 24-hour race at Le Mans in 1966.
Genre: Sports Drama
Director: James Mangold
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Release Date: November 15, 2019
Cast: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, John Bernthal, Caitriona Balfe, Tracy Letts, Josh Lucas
Running Time: 152 minutes
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Ford v Ferrari did many things well. The cinematography was lovely and the attention to period details was great. I truly felt as though I had been thrust back into the 1960s to watch an interesting story unfold. It also goes without saying that both leads were excellent. Damon was convincing as the slick-talking Carroll Shelby, stuck between the world of race cars and that of corporate politics. Bale was his usual intense method-acting self; at first he seemed a little over the top in his depiction of the admittedly outlandish Ken Miles, but by the end of the movie, he was entirely endearing. He made it easy to root for him.
The movie also got much of the automotive jargon right, delving into technical details with accuracy, even mentioning the honeycomb panel design of the J-car prototype that Miles was testing after the 1966 race, despite it being unimportant to the scene. Those little details, from the perspective of someone who understands them, really sold the movie.
What really enhanced the movie was that, like other good Hollywood racing movies (e.g. Rush), it wasn’t really about the racing itself. It was about the people involved and how their personalities manifested and interacted when put under the competitive pressures of high-stakes racing. And with such capable actors in the lead roles, it proved a winning formula.
Because I knew the story would be told from the point of view of Ford, which ultimately wins the “war,” I had concerns Ferrari would be depicted as a perhaps derisive, evil Goliath with Ford as the David figure, when in reality the American company’s resources dwarfed that of the Italian team.
But I was surprised to discover the movie spent little time depicting Ferrari at all beyond making it clear that all Enzo cared about was racing (which was indeed true to the real man). Instead, the movie painted an almost shockingly negative image of Ford and how its internal politics repeatedly got in the way of its own racing program.
“How Ford beat Ferrari despite itself thanks to the efforts of people like Shelby and Miles” would have been a more accurate title, though it must be said that not everyone at Ford was portrayed negatively. Jon Bernthal’s character, whom I wish had had more screen time in the second half, played a fairly levelheaded vice president. Henry Ford II, played by Tracy Letts, was portrayed with surprising depth — at times petulant, at others amenable, and in one particularly memorable scene, even sincerely vulnerable.
Josh Lucas’s Leo Beebe, on the other hand, was a caricature of the evil corporate man that brings me to…the bad.
In its attempts to play up Ken Miles’s hero story and guide the audience’s emotions, Ford v Ferrari played fast and loose with history. It’s true that the movie or its production never claimed to be a documentary, but I did wonder if it couldn’t have been less misleading.
For instance, one of the big movie arcs revolved around Miles having been told he could not race the GT40 he helped develop at the 1965 race at Le Mans. Instead, the movie had him working in the garage as he listened to the race commentary over the radio; then he had to prove himself at the 24 Hours of Daytona to earn his drive in the next race while Beebe conspired against him. Yet in the real world, Miles did race at Le Mans in 1965, and Ford would have had no reason to exclude him considering the sheer number of cars it brought to the race in the first place — it certainly needed the drivers.
But that’s one thing the movie conveniently overlooked: Reliability was such a concern at Le Mans, especially with how hard Ford and Ferrari were pushing each other, that the two companies were essentially throwing cars at the race in the hopes that at least one would finish out front. In the 1966 event, Ford had brought 12 cars and Ferrari 14.
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Ford v Ferrari also undermined several real individuals — including bona fide racing legends — to bolster Miles by contrast. Bob Bondurant, who the movie named as one of the undeserving drivers replacing Miles in the 1965 race, was, like Miles, also heavily involved in the development of the iconic GT40 and a friend of Shelby’s. And in the 1966 race that he arguably should have won, Miles was not laps ahead like the movie claims — rather, he had been racing Bruce McLaren hard for most of the event. Nor did Miles set the fastest lap of the race, which the movie plays up as “the perfect lap” (McLaren’s teammate Chris Amon, in the other GT40, had that honor).
These are other examples of how Ford v Ferrari takes liberties with what really happened, but truth be told, they probably won’t upset anyone that isn’t invested in racing or in history.
Then there were the usual Hollywood-isms, like how drivers regularly caught up or passed others by suddenly shifting gears and mashing in the throttle, as though they hadn’t already been doing that. I won’t make a list of these things because the movie did get other details right, and this is the kind of stuff I expected before walking in — and it’s why racing movies are always better when they focus on the people, as Ford v Ferrari did.
Ford v Ferrari was thoroughly enjoyable, even for a racing fan such as myself and for a non-racing fan such as my wife, who watched with me. Despite its flaws, I would definitely recommend it to anyone who doesn’t abhor sports dramas.
Kurt Verlin was born in France and lives in the United States. Throughout his life he was always told French was the language of romance, but it was English he fell in love with. He likes cats, music, cars, 30 Rock, Formula 1, and pretending to be a race car driver in simulators; but most of all, he just likes to write about it all. See more articles by Kurt.