Arts movie review

Unlikely heroes

An exhilarating and unexpectedly insightful glimpse into a hidden moment in racing history

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Christian Bale and Noah Jupe star as Ken Miles and Peter Miles, respectively, in 'Ford v Ferrari.'
Merrick Morton

Ford v Ferrari
Directed by James Mangold
Screenplay by James Mangold, John-Henry Butterworth, Jez Butterworth, and Jason Keller
Starring Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Jon Bernthal, Caitriona Balfe
Rated PG-13, Now Playing

Ford racing Ferrari sounds like an event with an obvious outcome, an unfair competition at best. However, spotlighting this unlikely but true historical event, director James Mangold’s film Ford v Ferrari highlights a hidden gem of a story where two unlikely race car fanatics helped accelerate the Ford company into a rivalry with Ferrari. Set in 1960s America, Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), car salesman and former racer, and Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a ruddy British car mechanic with immense racing expertise, find themselves at the forefront of Ford’s new branding mission: to beat Ferrari at what it does best: racing. During their passionate efforts to engineer a vehicle capable of lasting the infamous 24-hour Le Mans race, they are faced with a new, challenging world of power dynamics, fueled by corporate executives, prejudices, and their own personal trials.

The class difference is stark — Miles’s slouched posture and crude but loveable manner clash with the impeccable suits and bravado of the Ford men. Miles is seen as volatile and untrustworthy despite his racing prowess, and Shelby, as his friend and believer in his talent, works as a mediator between Miles and Ford as Ford makes a decision about who gets to drive their car. Damon does a subtle and excellent job of capturing the quiet agony of Shelby’s role in between these two worlds, creating this emotion without much explicit dialogue. Even with the Southern twang (which is strange to hear in his speech), Damon is a perfect match for this character — every dry smile and conflicted gaze seems completely natural. Shelby as a character internalizes a lot of his emotions, but Damon’s acting brings his feelings to the surface without even needing words. Wide, close-up shots on Damon and the other actors make for beautiful scenes and offer a greater depth of emotion throughout the film. Although Miles, the driver of Ford’s race car, is the focus of the movie, Damon proves to be the main actor. 

That being said, Bale’s performance as Miles is strong, giving Miles a gritty, stubborn, but also loving personality, especially around his family. His son plays a heartbreaking role in providing the necessary perspective on how dangerous racing can be despite its glory and appeal. The film balances out the stressful, fast-paced scenes with these quieter, more intimate moments between Miles and his son and wife. Miles and his son are often shown in beautifully calm night scenes, which speak to the contrast between Miles’s hectic days and calm nights. It is with this attention to its characters that the film avoids being just another race car action movie. 

Small, humorous moments are perfectly incorporated to lighten the mood of the film but also work to portray certain narratives. The scene where Miles and Shelby fight, spilling Miles’s groceries in an absurdly exaggerated way, is a goofy snapshot into the nature of their friendship. The film also pokes a bit of fun at Henry Ford II, whose strong exterior is absolutely shattered by a quick test run of the race car. In fact, the film does not pretend to be unbiased: the takeaway is most definitely that Miles and Shelby are the heroes while Ford executives are the worst. 

The action scenes in the movie are perfectly adrenaline-packed and engrossing, especially for race car fanatics or even just anyone who loves driving. Shots kept low to the ground shake with the rumbling of the road, giving a sense of speed that is heightened by a range of dynamic shots from all angles: overhead, driver’s point-of-view, and stationary frames that the vehicles zip in and out of. The film delightfully engages with the technical side of driving, pairing action scenes with shots of gear shifts and pedalling in relation to the RPM meter (maintaining 7000 during the fastest stretches, which was very high for that time). 

The feeling of motion is created not only through visuals but also through the combined squeaking of tires, powerful hum of the engine, and clangs marking the every movement of the vehicle, providing a powerful auditory experience. The action scenes are wonderfully indulgent and showcase the film’s skillful sound and visual editing as well as effective cinematography.

These racing events also establish the film’s time period, providing a peek into 60s racing culture. The film successively creates a flood of stimuli at Le Mans, where all types of media from all parts of the world are going at once — typewriters, radio, telephone, black-and-white TV — highlighting the massive effort to cover this incredibly popular and global sport. Experiencing Ford itself is another tribute to the era: as Shelby enters the Ford manufacturing facility, wide shots capture an imposing sea of black suits that step aside to reveal an expansive chamber of machines and spaces all in organized lines. 

Much in contrast with Ford’s automated, strict protocol, Miles’s ingenious intuition for creating the Ford race vehicle leads him to use old-fashioned techniques like taping strings onto the car to test its aerodynamics. This contrast between Miles’s less refined nature and Ford’s elegant, business-oriented mindset is a compelling driving force throughout the film, beyond just the mechanics of the car. The most notable effect is how this pressure changes Miles’s rebellious, almost self-centered attitude — a slow progression that is made possible by the film’s masterful control over the sense of passage of time. 

Even for audiences not particularly interested in engineering or cars, witnessing the emotional growth of Miles and the inner conflicts that Shelby deals with throughout this timeline pulls at the heart and gives the audience no choice but to sit on the edges of their seats during the final Le Mans showdown. The buildup to this investment in the characters is not explicitly realized until these later moments that create intense crucibles of elation and also heartbreak. The film leaves the audience with residues of emotional rollercoasters and societal themes to contemplate. Above anything, the strong connection you feel to the main characters and even the Ford race car rings as a success for this more-than-an-action film.