“Ford v Ferrari” is the kind of studio vehicle that feels like it was engineered to earn award nominations nearly as much as the Ford GT40 was tailor-made to compete at Le Mans. From its leads Matt Damon and Christian Bale as race-car designer Carroll Shelby and driver Ken Miles, to the slow establishment of their situation of individuals out to try and be the best while facing the evil old establishment leaders. It’s the kind of thing that Hollywood loves to fall all over itself in adulation, but in this particular case it winds up being better than the sum of its contrived parts.
The film follows the story of the Ford Motor Company trying to break out of a multi-year sales slump by creating a sexier, hip image for the post-war consumers who had come of driving age and looking to buy their first cars. To that end Henry Ford II (the grandson and namesake of the creator of Ford) enlists Shelby to create a racing machine that can hold up to the stresses of the 24 Hours of Le Mans race. Unfortunately their competition would be the annual winner-presumptive, Ferrari.
Miles is a rough-around-the-edges loose cannon but also the best racer around. Ford executives push Shelby to drop Miles because he’s not the kind of image that meshes with the Ford corporate machine. Caitriona Balfe (“Outlander”) plays Ken’s supportive wife Mollie, who helps ground him while still encouraging him to pursue his ambitions.
By the time the big race finally rolls around, the audience might almost have forgotten it’s a racing film and settled into it being a corporate machine vs. small upstart creators story. But when the action shifts to France, it peels out as quickly as the cars do and it becomes a genuinely high-tension ride, even if you might already be familiar with the races outcome. The emotion pivots not just with the race but with the orders that keep coming from the corporate suits doing their best to snatch personal defeat from the jaws of victory.
Yes, many of the cast will undoubtably wind up with a range of nominations, and it feels like it was in part designed with that as a goal in mind. That aside, it’s a great entry into the racing genre, and continues to reaffirm Damon’s acting chops away from his action films.
“Ford v Ferrari” is rated PG-13, and is 152 minutes long.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.