“Ford v Ferrari” had its first screening at the Telluride Film Festival on Friday, and the expansive pic provided a reminder – amid a sea of independents that dominate festival season– of what big studios can do at their best.
Christian Bale and Matt Damon play two men whose friendship eventually led to a showdown between the Ford and Ferrari auto companies at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s oldest auto endurance race. The film is about car racing, specifically about what makes a great racer versus an ordinary one. It turns out that what makes anyone great at anything is usually that they are doing it not for the money, not for the prizes, but for the pure love of the thing.
The best films are made for the pure love of the thing, too, as are the best performances. Here we have that all-too-rare animal, a studio film that tells an intimate story of love and friendship, but also one whose thrills comes just from a camera shooting a fast car in a competitive race. It is a reminder of just how few films of this kind, at this scale, are even being made, let alone released in movie theaters. A movie this good ought to have people lining up to see it, and will it likely have end of the year awards play too.
Directed by James Mangold from a script by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller, “Ford v Ferrari” crackles with dry humor as it tells a story that probably doesn’t seem all that exciting on the page. Ford Motor Company, managed by Henry Ford II (a very funny, stodgy Tracy Letts) wants to be known as a company that makes fast cars, so they hire auto designer Carroll Shelby (Damon) to build a car capable of breaking the Le Mans record held by Ferrari.
The conflict arises when Shelby wants the driver to be Ken Miles (Bale), while Ford wants someone who is more of a “team player,” as in, “you do what we tell you to do.” But it is precisely the fact that Miles thinks for himself that makes him such a great driver. A company can put anyone behind the wheel and teach them how to drive — but to drive like THAT requires something extra. That something extra turns out not to be so corporate friendly.
William Goldman once described great storytelling as what you get when the thing you expect to happen does, but not in the way that you expect it. “Ford v Ferrari” doesn’t step outside the formula of this kind of story – you know which points it has to hit, and hit those points it does. But it doesn’t even matter because it is such a joy to watch not just the spectacular racing sequences but even the more intimate scenes with Miles, his wife and his son. Mangold isn’t here to show off or reinvent the wheel, he’s here just to tell a good story.
With gorgeous cinematography by Phedon Papamichael, a score by Marco Beltrami and a kick-ass sound design team, we are swept up in the world of racing very fast cars, and in the minds of people crazy enough to get behind the wheel. So much of the joy of this movie is simply watching Miles’ son (an excellent Noah Jupe) watch his father race. His wife, played by Caitriona Balfe, doesn’t have much to do but is probably the one wife in a movie like this that isn’t discouraging her husband from doing the one thing he most loves to do.
The acting ensemble is top notch, but the film likely belongs to Christian Bale. Last seen gaining weight to play Dick Cheney, here he shape-shifts yet again, this time into a family man who knows cars and racing more than anyone. There isn’t a second of this film that we don’t believe he’s really that guy behind the wheel, grinding gears, pedal to the metal, lapping his challengers.
The chemistry between Bale and Damon is what makes the movie move the way it does, along with the script. Bale alone in the race car figuring out how to win and survive is where the film really sings.
“Ford v Ferrari” is a celebration of the kind of films only American studios can make. At some point big studios seemed to give up on the thing they do best. Why take a risk on something that has no pre-awareness, no brand, no origin story, no prequel? Why trust that audiences now want to see what audiences have always wanted to see? It costs too much, it risks too much.
But here, with Mangold’s fine film from 20th Century Fox via Disney, we have just that. This is the kind of movie audiences really want to see but rarely get the chance anymore. A big story, big shots, big stars — and they all must be seen on a big screen, because movies by great directors demand to be seen that way, especially when you get what you paid to see: breathtaking fast cars zooming around race tracks.