Drive like you mean it. The year is 1963, and the Ford Motor Company, led by Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) needs something to improve slumping sales. General Manager of Marketing, Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) offers a solution: Buy Ferrari, a sexy, youth-appealing car maker that is currently bankrupt, yet a stalwart of the racing scene, consistently winning “Le Mans,” the famous 24-hour France-based race. Terms of the contract dictate that Ford gets the majority of the racing department ownership, which founder Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone), maliciously shoots down.
To improve their fortunes, Ford’s going to have to win the whole Le Mans thing themselves. They turn to Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), the only American driver—now retired due to health issues—to win. Efforts to coax him out of retirement are futile, but Shelby, now a shop and team owner, suggests Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a supremely difficult and supremely talented driver who’s fearless behind the wheel. Time isn’t on their side, as only 90 days exist between announcing their intention to race at Le Mans and doing it. The war is on. It’s Ford V(s) Ferrari.
It was the great Edwin (played by Ja Rule) who famously opined in The Fast and the Furious that “It’s not how you stand by your car, it’s how you race your car.” No, I’m not saying that Ford V Ferrari is a biopic infused with the NOS of that franchise, just saying that the two movies have a focus on the general theme of what’s really on the inside, whether that’s a heart, or who is the one behind the wheel of a perfectly engineered race car. Like most biographies, “FVF” doesn’t set out to break new ground, but is that type of crowd-pleasing family feature that fits snugly into the holiday season.
Behind the proverbial directorial wheel is James Mangold, already well-versed with an actual biography in helming Walk the Line and directing another movie that felt like a lowkey biography in the genre-breaking Logan. Ford V Ferrari is not a life story chronicling the genesis and conclusion of its central characters’ lives but covering a specific period that shaped their lives and cemented them as legends. Honestly, the story sells itself, written by brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (Black Mass, Edge of Tomorrow, Get On Up), as well as Jason Keller (Escape Plan).
Granted, there’s nothing that hasn’t been seen before in FVF. The “V Ferrari” part is ancillary, secondary to the true conflict of Ford Corporate V Ford Chaotic, with the longstanding fight of being an individual vs being a part of a collective, good ol’ heart vs head, and chasing dreams vs what society tells you to settle for as themes interspersed within the larger mega-conglomerate war. However, the events of FVF benefit from not being widely known to those uninitiated to the history of car racing (i.e. yours truly), as some story revelations are legitimate surprises that add different dimensions and weight to the proceedings.
Unless it’s Need for Speed (something that actually bears a lot of similarities to Ford V Ferrari when thought about minus the craftsmanship and basic logic), a movie that uses an event of a super-long car race as the draw-in point should be exciting, provided it builds adequately to the moment. Mangold’s latest could probably shave 10 or so minutes off its pit-stop run-time, but he’s merely ensuring that the main event gets its just due. To say it plainly, Ford V Ferrari has an awesome final 30 minutes, a complete immersion of swift style and sound, all teased by Mangold during smaller races and fully unleashed during the Le Mans. Yet, the real MVP of the movie is easily composer Marco Beltrami, whose score is exactly what it needs to be when it needs to be it, whether that’s pensive, plucky, or peculiar.
Most any film that has a 1-2 combo of Bale and Damon is at the very least all but guaranteed a high floor. They’re, unsurprisingly, the only two well-rounded characters amid a slew of slightly overexaggerated/overacted villains (Letts, Josh Lucas as the silver-haired PR Specialist Leo Beebe) and those functional to the story to solely be concerned where applicable for Miles (Caitríona Balfe as Mrs. Miles, Noah Jupe as their son). With Bale, there’s obviously nothing that’s impossible for him to pull off, losing all the weight and then some he packed on channeling the Vice President (and Satan) Dick Cheney last year. He takes full advantage of being a loose cannon; however, it’s Damon’s cool consistency that ranks as the better—or at least more memorable—performance. Damon’s work here is the type of work that doesn’t necessarily seem “hard” or overly worthy of praise when the first trailer or even first watch is completed, but given some time to ruminate on it, it’s going to be one of those underrated performances when the totality of his career is examined one day as he truly disappears into the role.
Wait for it, wait for it, wait for it…now. Ford V Ferrari is a finely tuned biopic production doubling as a critical and commercial darling. Built Academy tough? Good likelihood.
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