The big race didn't finish exactly the way it's depicted in "Ford v. Ferrari."
And the hilarious scene previewed in the trailers — when race-car building legend Carroll Shelby delights and then frightens to the point of tears the Ford heir and CEO of Ford Motor Co. on a mad lap in the company's Ferrari-fighting GT40 racer? Never happened.
But it feels right — dramatically, comically and thematically. And in James Mangold's epic yet breezy spin around a piece of motorsport legend, if it didn't happen, it sure as hell should have. Want a lesson in how a two and a half hour period piece can just fly by? Mangold ("Walk the Line," "Logan") gives a master class in it, using the struggle, the titanic figures engaged in it and the pedal-to-the-metal setting to plunge us into American motorsport's equivalent of the moon landing.
Here's Shelby, a hustling Texan given a compact, cunning and comic understatement by Matt Damon. Shelby was the first American to win the prestigious 24 Hours of LeMans, and when he was forced to stop racing himself, he put a Ford V-8 into tiny British AC Ace sports car and created a world beating racer, and one of the most valuable collectible automobiles in history — the Shelby Cobra.
At Ford, Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) has just struck young-motorist gold with the Mustang, and he proceeds to convince the boss, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), that what Ford really needs, image-wise, is to buy the great European sports car builder Ferrari, which runs the fastest cars in the races that have cachet among the young — sports-car races.
Bernthal gives us a taste of the great American salesman that Iacocca would become. "James Bond does not drive a Ford, sir!"
The Deuce is sold. Sure, let's cut a check. (Even if the CEO thinks James Bond is "a degenerate.")
But the Italian-American Iacocca gets shut down by Italian Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone), who finishes his "no deal" tirade with a flurry of insults about the "fat" Ford and his "ugly factory" putting out millions of "ugly cars."
The deadpan Ford has had enough of "getting it in the tailpipe from a Chevy Impala," and he's not going to take this insult from some snooty Italian.
Build a car. Form a team. Win LeMans. And do it quickly. That's how they come to Shelby. But Shelby comes with baggage: Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a "brilliant, but difficult" Brit who owns a garage in Southern California and a test pilot's feel for how to turn a car into a world beater.
Shelby has to "handle" Miles and please his Ford masters, including Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), basically the "suit" in charge of its racing teams, set up as the villain of the tale.
American corporate culture
Sure, the Italians are the exotic foreign menace, arrogant again a mere two decades after their World War II humiliation. But the "enemy" in this 90-day sprint to Le Mans is ponderous American corporate culture, and Beebe becomes a thorn in Shelby and Miles' side — always putting the company and its culture and image first.
We don't see the Brits who hastily designed the GT40, just them delivering it to Shelby and Miles and Shelby's ace in the hole, engineer Phil Remington (Ray McKinnon). The movie focuses on that trio's efforts to make this burly beast hold the corners, hug the track and "go like hell."
The car is iconic, and gets that "Right Stuff" sort of star entrance here. Brits designed it, but it feels American — muscular and aggressive. Put a Ford V-8 in it and you can't wait to hear her get angry.
Casting Bale pays dividends in all the scenes with the car being tested, through Remington's DIY wind-tunnel on-the-track, through engine changes, brake issues — all the racing failures leading up to the big race.
Bale's Miles is in the car for all this, thunking through gears, talking to himself and the car in his Cockney accent. "Oh, YES," at everything he likes. "I'll have some more of THAT, if you please!" Occasionally punctuated with a disappointed "Bloody hell!"
Fits of recklessness
Characters show their emotions in "Ford v. Ferrari" in fits of recklessness — ex-Air Force pilot Shelby taking the controls of a Ford company plane to land at the big announcement ceremony, Miles' venting his fury at Shelby on the track, Mrs. Mollie Miles (Caitriona Balfe) scaring Ken half to death careening their Ford station wagon through backroads as she chews him out for not telling her he's getting back into racing.
And then there's that scene when Shelby drives Hank the Deuce in the "$9 million car you paid for" moment. Letts, a playwright and actor who has made deadpan authority figures something of a specialty in his film career, gets a laugh every time he turns up in the film. He's got WWII company anecdotes to underscore his "just win" lectures. He's peevish at failure, and you could believe this man would spare no expense just to get even with somebody who insulted him. This is a great supporting turn.
Damon's take on Shelby is colorful and canny, letting us see the wheels turning as he sizes up people and summons up the appropriate, drawled "My daddy used to tell me" anecdote to get what he wants — from Miles, Remington or Ford. His Shelby is a Western archetype whose laconic narration puts the film on a man-finding-out-what-he's-made-of footing.
The racing sequences are low-camera-angle montages passing by at a whiplash-quick blur. Suspense builds, humor defuses it, and the thrills feel hard-earned and even patriotic.
It stands with the greatest racing movies ever, and it's certainly the most entertaining. But there is no doubt about one last superlative: "Ford v Ferrari" is one of the best pictures of the year.
Roger Moore is an internationally syndicated movie critic and lifelong lover of movies.