Early in Ford v. Ferrari, James Mangold’s retelling of how American auto executives gearheads attempted to conquer the European racing circuit, a driver complains to his teammates that, “If we’re not winning, we’re losing.” Considered in a vacuum, the line lands as an inadvertent counterpoint to the Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby maxim that “if you’re not first, you’re last.”
But when Ford v. Ferrari’s runs its course, the line sticks out as a mission statement. With a cast led by Matt Damon and Christian Bale, Mangold’s created a propulsive and workmanlike racing movie full of vroom-vroom, rah-rah moments, but doesn’t let the audience forget why a pair of aging racecar drivers tried to win the 1966 edition of the fabled 24 Hours of Le Mans race: because a wealthy corporation, desperate to prop up its reputation, convinced them to do it.
The titular rivalry between the Ford Motor Company and Ferrari is more of a tease than the real conflict. Suffering from a bit of midcentury irrelevance, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) — grandson of his company’s founder — orders his executives to come up with fresh ideas. Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) suggests buying Ferrari — racing division and all — but when the Detroit executives scout their merger prospects in Italy, Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) is deeply unimpressed by the ugly assembly-line industrialists who would dare to tamper with his hand-tuned works of four-wheeled art.
The real clash comes when Ford recruits Carroll Shelby (Damon), a former racer now tinkering with performance cars, and Ken Miles (Bale), an ornery driver trying struggling to keep a garage open, to turn one of its coupes into a speedster capable of taking down Ferrari. In their way stands stuffy Detroit mandarins like Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), a slick marketer who’d fit in with any of the smarmy corporate reps Don Draper faced off against. He is always lurking, badgering Shelby that the straight-talking, devil-may-care Miles doesn’t fit the model of a “Ford Man.”
But the middle hour of Ford v. Ferrari is a muscly, metallic sequence of roaring engines, whirring dust clouds, and Carroll and Ken’s irresistible determinism to build a prize-winning car. Yes, it’s a men-on-a-mission story set during a time when American exceptionalism (even though Miles was British) still seemed achievable, but the cast, working off a long-gestating script by brothers Jez and John Henry Butterworth, with Jason Keller, makes those moments feel earned.
Bale, throwing himself into a role as eagerly as ever, fills up the screen as Miles, making him fearless behind the wheel, prickly in the body shop, but also tender and fiercely devoted to his wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe), and son Peter (Noah Jupe). Shelby is a cipher, though; aside from hinting at health issues that ended his racing career, Damon lets on little other than his motivation to build the best car possible. But that still leads to jubilant moments, like when Henry Ford shows up at Shelby’s California test track looking to grumble, but is reduced to blubbering tears after being taken for a spin in the screaming machine he’s bankrolled.
To go with the crackling performances, Mangold does not embellish the racing scenes, from test runs to trial races to the final, 24-hour showdown with Ferrari at Le Mans. After showing off his action chops with the brutal and uncompromising Logan, Mangold makes his car sequences fast, furious, and utterly captivating. Spinouts and crashes are shockingly violent, road conditions are terrifying, and the claustrophobia when Miles gets behind the wheel makes it feel like the theater walls are closing in.
And yet no matter how thrilling it gets as the cars whip around the Le Mans track, Ford v. Ferrari doesn’t lose grasp on the fact that the street-level action occurred in tandem with boardroom hijinks. Leo Beebe, a slick marketer who’d fit in with any of the smarmy guest characters, is always lurking. And Letts’s portrayal of Ford is a reminder that the wealthiest and most powerful people are also often the biggest babies.
Still, that doesn’t take away from the film’s ability to exhilarate. Carroll and Ken, though constantly badgered by their Ford overseers, are undaunted in their drive to upend their chosen sport. And it’s hard not to be won over by the gruff-guy friendship that emerges as they design their car. A throwback? Sure. But one that’ll have you wanting to strap in, pull your shades down, and slam the gas.