Directed by James Mangold and written by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller, American car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) battle corporate interference and the laws of physics to build a revolutionary race car for Ford in order to defeat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966. Also starring: Jon Bernthal, Caitriona Balfe, Josh Lucas, Noah Jupe, Tracy Letts, Remo Girone, Ray McKinnon and JJ Field.
Fast cars and underdog stories are always going to be a classic combination for a cinematic experience, and for it to be a true story? That’s a serious triple threat, however whether it makes the most of those elements is debatable. One of this film’s problems comes through in the opening, it really struggles to embrace the emotion of the story, it’s rather cold and tries to compensate for that with a little humour but it can’t cover it up entirely. It’s something that persists throughout, which is surprising given that you’d expect a story of triumph against the odds to really hit the sentiment hard, particularly Miles’ relationship with his wife (Balfe) feels contrived, they simply don’t have a strong chemistry. Much like Bale’s terrible English accent, their relationship feels utterly put-on and it doesn’t have a lot to add to the story; the one scene where they have a heated exchange feels as though it’s trying much too hard, it leans heavily on the melodramatics and feels entirely unnecessary and inadequately set up.
There’s a constant back and forth with Bale’s Miles, sometimes he brings a rather smug, dumb smile that shows his arrogance and stubbornness but then an equal if not more amount of moments that show his more likable side, it’s a strange mix that does land on the right side nearing the end but it’s not one of his best performances. Damon has a similar issue, some of his scenes feel inauthentic but in others he manages a higher quality like his previous work but again, this isn’t one of his best. However, they are both on top form when playing off one another, the two built a very clear friendship and brotherhood between these characters that remains strong throughout. Surprisingly one of the best performances of the film comes from Jon Bernthal, he may not be one of the leads but the progression of his character and the attitude he holds is great to watch and he adds a lot of personality where others are lacking. Similarly, there’s a particularly vindictive, aggressive performance from Josh Lucas who adds a lot to the story and gives a great deal of the tension that the film builds. Letts and Girone provide perfect portrayals of the titular big bosses Ford and Ferrari, Letts get one particularly emotional moment which has possibly more sentiment to offer than most of the film. Jupe and Balfe provide good performances but the former feels too sappy and the latter’s character feels slightly forced which can’t be blamed on the actress, it’s just an unfortunate, stereotypical choice by the writers.
Mangold’s name certainly became a bigger draw after Logan but his filmography is generally quite hit and miss with films like Identity, Knight and Day and The Wolverine but also Girl, Interrupted and Walk the Line but it is quite clear that this one lands in the hit category. Despite its issues, Mangold’s direction captures exactly the sort of atmosphere that you want from a racing film, it’s at its best when it’s on the track. The cinematography similarly is at its peak when the cars hit the tarmac, there are more dramatic moments where it can feel a little bland but it’s certainly a minority compared to the film as a whole. In contrast the score hits the right tone a little too well, it’s typical and too conventional, it lacks a spark to really ignite the film and bring it’s key moments to the full potential, it plays it much too safe. The energy overall hits extremely close to the story’s origins, the 1960s, its colours, pacing and tone feel pulled straight out of the era and as if you should see Steve McQueen driving one of the cars. While the choice to bring out that atmosphere so strongly does work for the story its telling, it also restricts it slightly, feeling as if it’s hitting the nostalgia button too hard and mostly appealing to the generation who were around when the events were happening. There’s no denying that it’s visually sophisticated and creates a fitting atmosphere for the story but it feels like it’s holding itself back. However, what it does do extremely well is creating the themes of solidarity, commitment and loyalty through that chemistry between Damon and Bale, the film is entirely hinged upon that relationship and it’s one that’s captivating.
Ford v Ferrari is undeniably entertaining but it feels like there’s something missing, for an underdog story it doesn’t hit all the more emotional notes that you’d expect, remaining fairly cold. It captures the 60s perfectly and visually is superb for the most part but there are moments where it falls short, particularly in dealing with its ending, feeling a bit too simplistic and glossing over more of the facts which the audience deserved to be included. It dives right into the racing world and will keep you glued to the story with its old-fashioned charm but seems like it didn’t quite fulfil its potential.