“Ford v Ferrari” has cars and racing, sure, but this movie is all about the relationships.
Fact versus fiction is a particularly tough line to tread in car-enthusiast movies. Early reviews from the traditional Hollywood sources of James Mangold’s compelling yarn Ford v. Ferrari have been very favorable, while in Metro Detroit, especially Dearborn, there will be kvetching over certain aspects of the story of how Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles designed and built the car that beat Ferrari at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans. (And again in 1967, ’68, and ’69.)
In this regard, Mangold’s film is very faithful to A.J. Baime’s source material, Go Like Hell; Ford, Ferrari and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans. Baime’s fabulous 2010 nonfiction book emphasized Miles’s pivotal role in developing the sports car that, in its third year of competition, had the speed, aerodynamics, handling, brakes, and reliability to score a 1-2-3 victory at the famed French road circuit.
Automotive historians and the engineers, designers, and Ford Motor Company executives who might take Mangold’s movie a bit too literally will bristle at some inaccuracies. The old rule of thumb for screenplay writing is that one page more or less equals one minute of film. Go Like Hell is 320 pages; Ford v. Ferrari is not five hours and 20 minutes, but two hours and 32 minutes.
That’s just about right, and in fact Mangold (Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma, The Wolverine) proves a compelling storyteller, with smooth, quick cuts and transitions that make the film go by quickly for its two and a half hours. Only the film’s critical final scene depicting Miles’s fate, coming weeks after the ’66 Le Mans competition might have used tighter editing. Ford v. Ferrari is much more a character study that nicely develops the relationship between development/race driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) and Ford GT40 MkII designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), and between Miles and his wife, Mollie (Caitrona Balfe) and his son Peter (Noah Jupe). It’s a wonderful buddy movie in the best Hollywood tradition, studying the personality of people who make their living driving fast cars—Balfe’s Mollie Miles included.
The movie’s conflict is more “Car Guys (including Mollie Miles) v. Ford Motor Company” than “Ford v. Ferrari,” in that Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) and his executives, engineers, and drivers are rather quickly dismissed as stuffy, cardboard-cutout opposition. In the 1963 walkout scene, where Ferrari cuts off negotiations with Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), Il Commendatore is shown holding out for Fiat’s better offer to purchase his automaker. Fiat didn’t buy his company (and then only 50 percent) for another six years.
Mangold’s film also plays up FoMoCo director of special vehicles Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) as the main villain, clashing with iconoclast Ken Miles, and as the exec who ordered the ’66 Le Mans photo finish that robbed Miles of his victory. Shelby was quoted years ago as pinning that decision on Henry Ford II, who in one well-publicized scene in the movie climbs into a GT40 MkII’s passenger seat and is brought to tears by Shelby’s tire-squealing “taxi ride.” The Deuce’s real personality, according to some old timers, wasn’t nearly that stuffy, though history did not record how familiar he was with racing cars.
No matter. This is Hollywood, Jake. The film develops the Miles-Shelby relationship and their work on the Ford GT40 at a breakneck pace, punctuated by sometimes over-the-top driving scenes depicting Ken Miles’s ferocity and relentless competitiveness. Bales’s Miles also is cantankerous, and hard for Ford execs to like. Iacocca is depicted as the only exec in tune with Miles and Shelby’s vibe.
Miles throws a wrench at his Shelby Cobra at a Willow Springs sports-car race early in the movie. While Shelby is still a bit of a rascal who sells a silver Cobra three times to three different customers, he’s the rational, sensible of the two, made to settle down because his bad ticker prematurely ended his racing career.
The Willow Springs sports-car race is one of only three depicted in “Ford v. Ferrari.” While stunt coordinator Robert Nagle did a wonderful job choreographing them, these scenes, especially the 24 Hours of Daytona and Le Mans, feel a bit claustrophobic. Mangold and Nagle didn’t have the luxury John Frankenheimer had for 1966’s Grand Prix of filming his movie cars with contemporary races on circuits from Monaco to Monza.
The first shots of the Daytona race make it look like the sports cars are competing on the track’s oval, until they finally dive for the first couple of turns on the infield. The climactic Le Mans race (filmed at Road Atlanta and an airstrip in Southern California) begins with a wonderful shot of the running start and Miles having trouble shutting the driver’s door, but most of the key racing scenes take place after nightfall—when you don’t see more than a couple of other cars, including Miles dicing with Ferrari driver Lorenzo Bandini (Francesco Bauco). Miles’s teammate in the #2 Shelby American MkII, Denny Hulme (Ben Collins), has so few scenes, novices might think Ken Miles raced all 24 hours.
Never mind. These are well edited, perfectly shot scenes and will tell the story most of you know already, anyway. Go see Ford v. Ferrari for the cars and the races and the Mad Men-style sets and costumes. Stay and appreciate the well-developed relationship between Shelby and Miles—and between Ken and Mollie and Peter.