It’s hard to believe Ford v Ferrari was initially going to star Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in the lead roles, with Oblivion and Only the Brave director Joseph Kosinski set to direct the movie. This is particularly evident since Matt Damon and Christian Bale did such a great job playing Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles respectively. It’s the kind of perfect casting that both of these actors really made the roles their own. Don’t be surprised if these two or at least, either of them winds up getting nominated for next year’s Oscars.
Based on the true story, Ford v Ferrari follows Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) willing to do whatever it takes to win over Enzo Ferrari’s (Remo Girone) team at the 24 Hours of Le Mans during the crucial year of 1966. To do that, he enlists the help of Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a former 1959 Le Mans champion who forced to give up racing due to his heart condition, to design a brand new race car — Ford GT40 — for the Ford Motor Company. And in order to fulfil the dream, Shelby personally handpicked British-born Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a hotheaded mechanic/driver who loves to do things his way, to be in charge of getting behind the wheels.
Clocking at 152 minutes, it’s easy to dismiss that Ford v Ferrari is going to be one of those unnecessarily lengthy and laboured biographical sports drama in need of a trimmer editing. Frankly, that’s what usually would happen if it falls in the hands of a lesser director.
But James Mangold, who is no stranger in helming biographical works (see 2005’s Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line), knows well how to spin a good old-fashioned, tried-and-true biographical drama that is both entertaining and engaging at the same time. It’s like witnessing the 24 Hours of Le Mans itself: Mangold has a knack of pacing, in which he knows when to accelerate and when to slow down without losing the momentum.
Even with Jez and John-Henry Butterworth alongside Jason Keller’s screenplay tend to succumb into one of those been there, done that-kind of standard-issue biopic territory, the movie’s otherwise familiar underdog story of a Ford team trying to beat the dominating race-car champion of Ferrari manages to get a real boost with enough strong human drama to keep us hooked throughout the running time. But Ford v Ferrari isn’t just about dramatic tension all the way, as Mangold and his screenwriters also strike the right balance by offering a contrast of lighthearted character moments (the buddy-movie vibe between Damon’s Shelby and Bale’s Miles quickly come to mind).
Of course, it helps that the actors give their all in their respective roles. Apart from the aforementioned Matt Damon and Christian Bale’s committed performances, Mangold doesn’t forget to give ample room for the supporting cast to shine as well. Tracy Letts delivers a spot-on performance as Henry Ford II, while Josh Lucas’ oily portrayal as Henry Ford II’s right-hand man Leo Beebe deserves equal mention. Jon Bernthal offers a solid turn as vice president of Ford, Lee Iacocca and he gets his particular moment during a scene dealing with Remo Girone’s Enzo Ferrari.
As the only major female character in this otherwise male-driven movie, Caitriona Balfe proves her worth in what could have been a thankless, obligatory wife role as Miles’ devoted partner Mollie. Finally, Noah Jupe, who plays Miles’ son Peter shows terrific son-and-father rapport with Christian Bale.
Then come the technical part and Ford v Ferrari doesn’t disappoint. Mangold insists the racing scene is shot as practical as possible without relying too much on CGI — a result that made the action set-pieces all the more exciting. The climactic third-act stretch that dedicated most of its remaining running time during the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans is both thrillingly staged with remarkable verve. Coupled with Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders’ riveting score along with Phedon Papamichael’s visually arresting cinematography and its impeccably revving sound design made Ford v Ferrari best experienced on the big screen.