‘Ford v Ferrari’ Is a High-Octane Sports Drama That Plays by Its Own Rules

The true story of how Ford’s push to appeal to younger car enthusiasts led to an epic showdown with Ferrari at 1966’s French sports car race 24 Hours of Le Mans is told in the adrenaline-fueled drama “Ford v Ferrari.” Matt Damon portrays Carroll Shelby, the retired race car driver and automotive engineer who was recruited by Ford to build a race car and head up a racing team. Christian Bale co-stars as Ken Miles, the British driver who was one of the top racers in the game, although he doesn’t fit the mold of what the powers that be at Ford consider to be a model athlete.

Bale gives another great performance as Ken, a World War II vet who gave his best years to the military and felt left in the dust when he returned to racing. Fortunately, he has a supportive wife, Mollie (the sublime Caitronia Balfe), an unconventional woman for her time. She’s her husband’s biggest fan, but she’s no doormat. Despite already being in his forties, he’s one of the best on the track, although his cantankerous personality doesn’t exactly have sponsors lining up. He and Mollie are running on fumes when Carroll offers him the job not only racing for Ford, but also helping him develop the car. Despite a few tussles, Carroll and Ken have a strong relationship based on mutual trust and respect. Mollie, unfortunately, is relegated to the sidelines as the racing gets into gear, although their son, Peter (rising actor Noah Jupe), often gets to tag along with his dad, and he proves to be eerily perceptive. 

In addition to the bromance between Carroll and Ken, “Ford v Ferrari” explores the key players at Ford during the first half or so of the sixties. It could not have been an easy job to make the suits interesting in a movie about racing, but under the direction of James Mangold, the cast makes them compelling characters. There’s Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), the future titan who here is an idealistic young exec. It is Iacocca who sees the value of appealing to the Baby Boom generation, the first of which are teenagers in this era. Understated character actor Tracy Letts plays Henry Ford II, the CEO who has a chip on his shoulder because his achievements haven’t lived up to those of his father. He pulls the trigger on the race car after being insulted by Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone), the founder of the automobile company that has won Le Mans the past several years.

But the closest thing to a villain in ‘Ford v Ferrari” is not Ferrari, although it would have made sense to have shifted the focus on them more, considering the title, but Ford executive Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas). Lucas is perfectly smarmy as this guy who gets it in his head early on that Ken is not the right image for Ford, despite his expert skills behind the wheel. So determined is Beebe to be right that he even willing to sabotage the team.

One does not have to be a car buff to get into “Ford v Ferrari,” as it deals with universal themes pertaining to perseverance and relationships. Once Ken and Carroll and their team get to Le Mans, the film becomes a high-octane ride, with Ken stretching to the limits of his endurance during the 24 hours of the race. There’s plenty of curves on the way to the finish line, and things don’t always go as expected. This isn’t another paint-by-the-numbers sports movie. And just when the viewer thinks it’s winding down, the rug gets pulled out from underneath them.

Ford v Ferrari” opens Nov. 15 in theaters nationwide.