'Ford v Ferrari' combines compelling character drama with thrilling rides

Posted 11/20/19

When it comes to cinematic portrayals of competitive sports, car racing films have vastly fewer credible contenders for Academy Awards in their ranks than, say, baseball movies.

The temptations …

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'Ford v Ferrari' combines compelling character drama with thrilling rides

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When it comes to cinematic portrayals of competitive sports, car racing films have vastly fewer credible contenders for Academy Awards in their ranks than, say, baseball movies.

The temptations seem to be to treat the racing itself as a pretext for meathead action or slapstick comedy, or else to showcase admittedly lavish visuals at the expense of actual story content.

"Ford v Ferrari" not only manages to dodge all those pitfalls by diligently building a character-centric narrative over its first 90 minutes, but it also delivers a thoroughly engaging set of racing sequences in its final hour by literally putting the audience in the driver's seat, all of which adds up to a two-and-a-half-hour film that somehow just seems to fly by.

"Ford v Ferrari" retells the real-life history leading up to the Ford Motor Company's first entries into the 24 Hours of Le Mans races as the convergence of an eclectic set of individuals who are the solutions to each other's problems.

Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), inheritor of his father's company, needs to prove the Ford brand isn't past its prime, and that he isn't a lesser successor to the first Henry Ford. Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), his vice president, needs to prove his worth to Ford, especially after presiding over a steady sales slump, and badly bungling a bid for the Ford Motor Company to purchase the cash-strapped Ferrari company.

Meanwhile, former race car driver Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), who was forced out of the driver's seat by a heart condition, still feels the need for speed, which he sates as a designer and engineer of race cars for other drivers. And Ken Miles (Christian Bale) is a winning driver, who knows how cars need to be built and handled to survive the hazards of the track, but he has a temper and an IRS debt that's cost him his family business.

So when Enzo Ferrari responds to Iacocca's purchase offer by telling him that Henry Ford II is not the man his father was, Ford's wounded pride compels him to issue Iacocca marching orders and a blank check to enter Le Mans and defeat Ferrari, which leads Iacocca to Shelby and Miles.

As with most movies ostensibly based on real-life events, there are a few elements that stand out as obviously manufactured to create more dramatic conflicts than likely transpired in the true tale. Josh Lucas' portrayal of Ford executive Leo Beebe as an oily, overly cautious company man who obstructed the achievements of Shelby and Miles, for example, has already been criticized by those who knew Beebe in real life.

But overall, this is a tremendously satisfying story, with all the actors (even Lucas, who was born to play duplicitous dirt-bags) doing exactly what they need to do to make it work. Damon plays Shelby as a man who's only halfway grown out of being the hothead that Bale's Miles still is, but you'll root for Shelby because he's an empathetic, effective leader who listens to and cares about his team, just as Miles can be forgiven his outbursts because he so instinctively understands the road and the machine in his care.

Along the way, we get memorable performances from Letts as an authoritarian, out-of-touch Henry Ford II, whose only openly emotional moment comes from finally realizing how far automobile technology has advanced since the days of his father, and the always-watchable Bernthal (best Punisher ever) playing a young Lee Iacocca with far more swagger than I remember the man having in the Chrysler commercials I grew up watching during the 1980s.

Also notable are Caitriona Balfe as Mollie Miles, who demonstrates the mix of patience and unwillingness to brook any bull that would be needed to be Ken Miles' wife, and Ray McKinnon as Shelby's chief engineer, Phil Remington, who shares an understated, comforting scene with a wide-eyed, anxiously inquisitive Noah Jupe as Peter Miles, Ken's son.

Catch this one on the big screen, so you can fully appreciate its immersive visuals.

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