James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari (2019) feels strangely like an artefact from a bygone age, when movie studios would spend a reasonable amount of money making an adult drama with a talented director and some popular stars, a crisply-plotted screenplay, and glossy production values – and then give that film a properly marketed theatrical release. In recent years the blockbusters have grown bigger, while the adult dramas have become smaller. For non-franchise films outside of of the foreign/arthouse niche, streaming providers await. Weirdly, for a film about as traditional as mainstream narrative cinema gets, Ford v Ferrari genuinely feels like a breath of fresh air.
Inspired by true events, the film follows race car drivers Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and Ken Miles (Christian Bale) as they collaborate on a Ford-backed bid to defeat Ferrari at the Le Mans racing event.
It is not just that Ford v Ferrari feels like a classier Hollywood drama from a past age; the film actively plays on a strong sense of nostalgia. Its 1960s setting plays on it audience, as does its portrayal of car racing as a heroic, life-or-death pursuit. Its dual protagonists are both well established with the audience as part of the ‘greatest generation’: World War II veterans who continue to risk their lives in pursuit of speed and glory. The period setting also helps sideline any audience concerns over pollution, fossil fuels, or global warming that might plague a more contemporary motor sports story. The story contrasts an ‘old world’ take on racing, where masculine men drove cars at dizzying speeds and lived under some code of honour, with a ‘new world’ take where the marketing staffers try to run the sport without any real understanding of what it is to race cars. The film may be titled Ford v Ferrari, but it really is a story of uncomplicated goodhearted men going to battle with untrustworthy, venal marketing executives. (I work in marketing as a day job; I get how we’re an easy target).
Where both screenplay and direction excel is in finding a 21st century balance of character inside a 20th century story. Miles has both a wife who loves him (played by Outlander‘s Catriona Balfe) and a son that idolises him (Noah Jupe). The relationships are provided with depth and realism, as well as both internal and external conflict. They feel real, and never feel as if they have been subsumed by all of the car racing. Similarly Miles himself is well-developed and distinctive – a prickly anti-authoritarian who does not like being told what to do – and benefits from one of Christian Bale’s strongest screen performances.
Matt Damon plays legendary driver and car designer Carroll Shelby with an excellent sense of maturity and weariness. He chafes enough against his corporate masters at Ford to side with Miles, but he is also visibly smart enough to play the game the best he can. In recent years Damon has been knocking it out of the park with his dramatic performances, and Ford v Ferrari makes little exception.
James Mangold’s direction is technically superb, boasting a crisp visual aesthetic and an uncomplicated shooting style. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael contributes a classical sheen reminiscent of pre-Kaminski Spielberg, with none of the CGI-heavy milkiness that afflict a lot of blockbuster filmmaking. The racing scenes are a masterpiece of visual effects, film editing and sound design. The sense of speed is palpable and thrilling. The emotional stakes are pushed high with foreshadowing that ensures the audience’s understanding that racing cars can be seriously dangerous business.
This is a film that knows exactly what it wants to be, and which is carefully engineered for audience satisfaction. It is not simply in the style of films Hollywood used to release all of the time – it is a strong reminder of just how entertaining those films really were.