“Ford v Ferrari,” James Mangold’s meaty, muscular slice of mainstream movie entertainment, wastes no time in getting off to the races. The film opens with Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) in the heat of his victorious drive at the 1959 24 Hours of Le Mans race in France. During a nighttime pit stop, he hops out of his Aston Martin, extinguishes his racing suit, yells, “Am I on fire?” and jumps back in his vehicle. We’re given a bug’s-eye view of the road, careening just above the asphalt, plastered to the low-riding windshield zipping around deserted nighttime country roads. It’s nothing less than a straight thrill ride. You can practically smell the exhaust fumes wafting off the screen.
It’s the story of a couple of guys who love cars and live to make them go fast: Shelby and his pal Ken Miles (Christian Bale). In the mid-’60s, they happen to find themselves the pawns in a war between a behemoth Detroit automaker and a smooth Italian sports car magnate. “Ford v Ferrari” is their tale of being wedged between automotive giants battling it out in a war for gas-guzzling glory.
In a fit of pique, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) demands that his team come up with a brilliant idea to drum up car sales. Enter a young and dashing exec, Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), who suggests getting into the racing world, a chance to market cool and sporty James Bond-type vehicles to hip young baby boomers. Begrudgingly, Ford goes for it. Iacocca taps Shelby, who taps Miles, a salty British-born World War II vet living in Los Angeles with his wife (Caitriona Balfe) and son (Noah Jupe), working as a mechanic and participating in local races, upsetting customers and sponsors alike with his prickly personality. As singularly obsessed as he is with automotive performance, Shelby knows Miles is Ford’s only hope at beating Ferrari at their own game.
However, “Ford v Ferrari” is a bit of a misnomer. Ferrari isn’t the antagonist, Ford itself is. It might as well be called “Ford v Ford” for all the bickering, infighting and sabotage. It’s largely levied by Josh Lucas’ slimy marketing exec, Leo Beebe, who spends most of his energy getting in the way of Shelby and Miles. Harboring a personal grudge against Miles, whom he sees as unmarketable, Beebe throws wrench after wrench into their success, trying to force the squeakiest clean outcome with his preferred optics.
“Ford v Ferrari” is ultimately a story of the way human ingenuity can be subsumed by corporate practice. Mangold, and writers Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller, underline the notion that this kind of racing requires human touch, not an algorithm, and the Ford racing program chafes against the quirky, flawed genius behind the wheel. Underneath the hood of the race car madness is a surprisingly radical treatise on the corporate exploitation of human labor.
Damon is fun to watch as the dry, drawling Texan Shelby. But Bale, predictably, is the heart and soul of “Ford v Ferrari,” rangy and wiry, speaking an accent native to his U.K. homeland for the first time in a long time. His twitchy, obsessive performance is deeply humane, a portrayal of a man who may not have been the picture-perfect company spokesman, but one whose unique life experiences gave him his incredible skill. That’s something corporate strategies could never snuff out.