would be a shame if “Ford v Ferrari” were to attract an audience composed of no one but motorheads. The title doesn’t help. In some countries, the movie is being released as “Le Mans ’66,” which isn’t much better. It’s undeniable that cars, or discussions of cars, feature in almost every scene, and that one car is pushed so close to its limits that its wheels, inside their rims, glow like the heart of a forge; yet this is not, in essence, an automotive film. It’s a film about pride—about being as proud of your own flesh and blood as you are of your metal machines, and about the craziness that flares up whenever pride gets hurt.
Exhibit A: the face of Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts). It’s the mid-nineteen-sixties, and we’ve just seen Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone), in his Italian stronghold, brusquely reject a takeover bid from Ford. The bad news is brought back to the boss. Told of Ferrari’s insults, he doesn’t flinch—not, that is, until the final jab, as reported by an underling: “You’re not Henry Ford. You’re Henry Ford II.” That does it. That hits home. His expression is that of every favored child, through the ages, who has inherited a shining crown and fears, deep down, that he doesn’t deserve it. He is the prince, stuck in the shadow of the king and seeking to cast his own light. Letts, who as a performer and a playwright has grown scarily wise to the embodiments of power, tightens his features and sets his jaw. His eyes, as hard as stones, are a declaration of war.
Battle is to be joined on the racetrack at Le Mans. Ferrari, who has won the fabled twenty-four-hour race four times in the past five years, must and will be dethroned. No pressure. To that end, Ford brings in Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), who was a co-driver in the Aston Martin that won Le Mans in 1959, and who will now attend to the birth of a new vehicle, specifically designed to be a Ferrari-whipper. And Shelby, in turn, will bring in Ken Miles (Christian Bale), who is swifter than any other driver on the circuit and more stubborn than is good for him. Think of him as the world’s quickest mule.
“Ford v Ferrari” is directed by James Mangold, and it may be his strongest film. Since his début, “Heavy” (1995), he’s been drawn toward abrasion—to the talent, or the weakness, that people have for rubbing against each other. Of late, in his Marvel offerings, “The Wolverine” (2013) and “Logan” (2017), such emotional roughness has coarsened into raw violence, and I’m glad to say that, in the new movie, balance is restored; the rub goes on, primarily between Shelby and Miles, and sparks keep flying, but there are moments of surprising quietude. When Miles is informed that he won’t be driving at Le Mans in 1965, on the ground that, as one company executive puts it, he’s “not a Ford man,” he doesn’t ignite. He nods, accepts the decision, and stays in America, tinkering with engines, and listening to the race on the radio. Inside, of course, his soul is revving up, fuelled by the humiliation. His time will come.
Bale is a cussed and calculating actor, yet he’s never been more likable than he is here—an irony to relish, since the character he plays makes so little effort to be liked. Miles is a Brit, from the fringe of Birmingham, with an accent of impermeable glumness. Chin up, mouth down: the basic demeanor of the mutinous. The idea of his obeying corporate strategy at Ford, let alone taking on the mighty glamour of Ferrari, is itself an excellent joke. (Shelby, played by Damon at his most chipper, is more pliable. Being a Texan, though, and rarely hatless, he is anything but a pushover.) Mangold adds an unexpected grace note, for Miles has a wife, Mollie (Caitriona Balfe), and a son, Peter (Noah Jupe), both of whom he adores. Indeed, the three of them constitute what will be, for current moviegoers, a bewildering rarity: the non-sappy happy family.
Balfe, though she doesn’t have a heap of screen time, is forceful in all she does. Annoyed with Ken, Mollie guns their station wagon at such a furious clip that even he, seated beside her, begs her to slow down. And Balfe is there again, in the movie’s best scene—no cars, no crowds, simply a sunny day in suburbia. Shelby shows up at the Miles residence, and Ken, who has a beef with him, clonks him on the nose; soon the two of them are slugging it out on a patch of grass across the street. Mollie emerges, takes one look, and, instead of rushing over to stop them, fetches herself a garden chair and calmly settles down with a copy of Better Living to watch the bout unfold. She sees these men for what they truly are. Boys will be boys, however fast their toys.
The more dangerous fight is reserved for the track—for many tracks, from Willow Springs, an hour or so north of Los Angeles, to Daytona, and thus, climactically, to the course at Le Mans. Shelby calls it “eight and a half miles of country road,” and he’s right. The scrap between the leading teams is surreal as well as punchy, with the Ford and the Ferrari hurtling between green fields, so close to each other that the drivers can swap snarls. Even now, for all the snap of the editing, we feel that we’re watching a character study strapped into an action flick. “Drive like you mean it” is Miles’s motto, and here, in France, he means business. Not the business of the Ford Motor Company, or the cramped Oedipal dealings of its chief, but the more pressing business of being Ken Miles, to the max.
There are only two downsides to this bracing tale. One, it could use a trim; the clash between our dynamic heroes and the stiff suits in the boardroom doesn’t need to be hammered home. And, two, strangely, Mangold misses a trick. The car developed by Shelby, and piloted by Miles, is the GT40. All that concerns them, understandably, is its pace and its powers of endurance, and when, beside the grid at Le Mans, they spot the Ferraris, resplendent in their scarlet plumage, Miles remarks, “If this were a beauty pageant, we just lost.” Not so. The GT40 was the most beautiful—some would say the only beautiful—creature ever to bear the badge of Ford, and certainly the only one that could look a Ferrari in the headlamps and not blink. Le Mans ’66 was never merely a matter of speed and pride; it was also, in Bola Deposit Pulsa, a contest to ravish the eye.