‘Ford v Ferrari’ Film Review: Christian Bale and Matt Damon Drive Steady Through Underwritten Le Mans Tale

The race sequences are breathtaking, but the characterizations need a tune-up in James Mangold’s latest

Ford v Ferrari
Merrick Morton/20th Century Fox

Maybe it’s too much to expect a film titled “Ford v Ferrari” to really touch on anything beyond the heart-pounding 24 hours of 1966’s legendary Le Mans auto race in France, upon which the film is based.

But with a staggering two-and-a-half-hour runtime, you’d think director James Mangold (with writers Jason Keller and Jez and John-Henry Butterworth) would have delved more deeply into the interior lives of its two protagonists, played by Christian Bale and Matt Damon, in order to ground their narrative in something other than adrenaline and testosterone.

There’s certainly lots of opportunity to do so, especially through the intriguing friendship between sports-car engineer and driver Ken Miles (Bale), who competed in the historic race, and driver and car designer Carroll Shelby (Damon), who had previously hired Miles as a test driver before eventually bringing him on board to represent Ford Motor Company at Le Mans. While it’s established that they have a kinship, we don’t get to know much about who they really are off the track, which would have helped to humanize the narrative.

And it’s not like there’s no story to tell here: The real-life Miles was an English-born WWII veteran for before he became a renowned sports car racing engineer and driver, but his military background is barely mentioned in the film. In fact, each aspect of his character is presented as a bullet point — he’s the loving father of Peter (Noah Jupe, “Honey Boy”) and husband to Mollie (Caitriona Balfe, “Outlander”).

We learn early on in the film that the couple is experiencing money problems, with his garage being seized at one point. But Mangold almost never takes the time to create a sense of urgency around that or to explore Miles’ willingness to regularly risk his life on a racetrack. (Mollie, to the film’s credit, doesn’t play into the trope of a wife terrified of her husband’s affinity for death-defying races.)

The other thing we know for sure in the film is that Miles is an oil-stained hothead to everyone who’s not his family. Why? Mangold and his team clearly don’t think that’s important to figure out either.

Often on the receiving end of Miles’ ire, in the film anyway, is Shelby, a cowboy hat-wearing, bona fide salesman with the can-do attitude to match. He’s owner of the car manufacturer Shelby American, Inc. and savvy with suits like Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts in an unusually caricaturist performance), then-president of Ford. Unlike Miles’ depiction, which at least shows him at home with his family, Shelby is reduced to a nearly one-dimensional figure whose sole purpose is to liaise between the ever-pugnacious Miles and the haughty men at Ford, who want anything but an agitator representing them on the track.

We never even learn where Shelby lives in the film, because we mostly see him behind the wheel of one of his cars, barking orders at his team on the racetrack, challenging Ford’s racing director Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), or dodging wrenches thrown at him by Miles. Though it’s mentioned in the film that Shelby has a heart condition, often a point that alludes to a character’s mortality, it’s compartmentalized. That’s a puzzling storytelling decision, considering that the real Shelby ultimately died after suffering from heart problems throughout his life, an ailment that goes completely unidentified in the film. Also virtually unmentioned in the film are Shelby’s two failed marriages (up to that point) and three children.

Who are these two men, really, and why should non-racing fans care about them? Their personal tics, which may or may not have influenced their relationship and professional ambitions, are shadowed in favor of the more visually cinematic appeal of the titular car brands duking it out on the racetrack. While Mangold tries to point to an underdog narrative between the more practical Ford brand, trying against all odds to reinvent their image and to defeat the sleek, Italian-owned Ferrari, what we really get is a story about egos and car racing.

But to be fair, “Ford v Ferrari” is a spectacular viewing experience made for the big screen. The sound editing alone, led by Donald Sylvester, not to mention the hair-raising stunts, instantly grip you to your seat as we watch a confident Bale burn metal and zip past Miles’ competitors, proving the Ford naysayers wrong, on the track. It’s fun to watch. Frustratingly empty, but exhilarating nonetheless.

“Ford v Ferrari” just could have been so much more than a car racing movie; even the “Fast and Furious” films have more heart. While Mangold and his writers try to carve a space in the narrative to discuss mortality — specifically at the end, where Ray McKinnon, wonderful here, discusses a fatal car crash — it’s much too late in the film and thus ineffective.

Though it’s bolstered primarily by the charisma of Bale and Damon’s performances, the soulless yet thrilling “Ford v Ferrari” doesn’t provide much more than huffy banter, corporate rivalry and an adrenaline rush. The real-life characters deserve more than that.