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Review: Why Ford v Ferrari is a must-see for any motorsport fan

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Nov 15, 2019, 3:56 PM

With Christian Bale and Matt Damon in the lead roles of Ken Miles and Carroll Shelby respectively, the ‘Ford v Ferrari’ movie – a.k.a. ‘Le Mans ’66’ in Europe – opens on Friday, Nov. 15 across the U.S. David Malsher explains why it’s a must-see for motorsport aficionados and how it could turn a wider audience on to the magic of racing.

A motorsport addict with appreciation and knowledge of the sport’s history should leave a screening of Ford v Ferrari with only one significant grievance, and that is its title. For one thing, those who have missed the trailers might mistakenly avoid the movie for fear it’s either a dull management board-level battle and/or a pseudo documentary. Secondly, the title can even be regarded as misleading: from about the halfway point of the film, director James Mangold and screenplay writers Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller ensure the marque rivalry, the foundation on which the narrative builds, has becomes far less prominent than the engaging human drama.

That’s a necessary shift, for imagine if Mangold had elected to focus on Ford v Ferrari as the title suggests. Regardless of the fact that cars from Maranello won seven of the eight LM24s held between 1958 and ’65, most film buffs would struggle to regard gargantuan Ford Motor Company as an underdog against comparatively tiny Ferrari. So the American behemoth would be seen to throw vast amounts of dollars at the project, the sledgehammer would crack the nut and Goliath would beat David – hardly a heroic tale. By bringing the Carroll Shelby/Ken Miles relationship to the forefront of the picture, Mangold can focus on a personal crusade and an internal power struggle.

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So here’s a spoiler alert: the talented but out-of-favor hero, on the brink of scoring a dream victory, is cruelly robbed of glory by corporate meddling and, just a couple of months later, goes to his grave with his talent admired by colleagues and rivals but inadequately reflected in the record books. Perhaps the most uplifting achievement of Ford v Ferrari is that it will bring worldwide recognition for the truly underrated Miles.

So here’s how it goes down. Shelby (Matt Damon), a former driver who shared the winning Aston Martin DBR1 in the 1959 Le Mans 24 Hours with Roy Salvadori, has set up a car customizing company whose most significant achievement so far has been the rather fantastic idea of dropping a Ford V8 into an AC Ace to create the immortal AC Cobra. The result is a huge success: the model goes into production and delivers a near-immediate adrenaline shot to Ford’s sportscar pedigree, culminating in the Peter Brock-designed Shelby Daytona Cobra Coupe winning its class at the Sebring 12 Hours and Le Mans 24 Hours.

Thus despite his somewhat rough-’n’-ready attitude when dealing with the suits at FoMoCo, Shelby earns the respect of Henry Ford II (played here by Tracy Letts) and is given the task of developing the Ford GT40 into a world-beater – more specifically, a Ferrari-beater – in Europe’s most prestigious race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The GT40 is a project born of anger: Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) had been investigating the possibility of making his company financially secure by selling out to a corporate giant, and Ford was lured in, then spurned, by Il Commendatore who balked at the proposed terms and conditions of the deal. In reality, most reasonable folk would see both sides of the argument; not surprisingly, the screenplay casts Mr. Ferrari in a less than favorable light…

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Matt Damon and Christian Bale

Matt Damon and Christian Bale
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Photo by: 20th Century Fox

Christian Bale

Christian Bale
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Photo by: 20th Century Fox

Matt Damon

Matt Damon
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Photo by: 20th Century Fox

Christian Bale

Christian Bale
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Photo by: 20th Century Fox

Christian Bale

Christian Bale
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Photo by: 20th Century Fox

Christian Bale and Matt Damon

Christian Bale and Matt Damon
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Photo by: 20th Century Fox

Christian Bale

Christian Bale
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Photo by: 20th Century Fox

Christian Bale and Matt Damon

Christian Bale and Matt Damon
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Photo by: 20th Century Fox

Ford v Ferrari’s two significant factual oversights/gloss-overs/time compressions – call them what you will – occur at this point in the narrative. (1) It’s not mentioned that in 1964 the GT40s were run by John Wyer of Ford Advanced Vehicles, and they proved aerodynamically and mechanically troublesome – a strange point to ignore, as those initial troubles were the catalyst in Ford transferring the project to Shelby for ’65. (2) The film suggests that Ford executives wouldn’t allow Shelby to run Miles at Le Mans in ’65 when in fact they did (albeit reluctantly and only after Shelby’s cajoling). It was in fact the 1964 Le Mans when Miles’ talents, already proven by his work for Shelby on the Cobra, were irrationally ignored by the Ford Advanced Vehicles squad.

Back to the movie, factual timeline notwithstanding: Shelby must persuade the Blue Oval’s top brass that Ken Miles (Christian Bale) is an essential part of the team to tackle Le Mans. Shelby has seen Miles race in the SCCA, has witnessed his prodigious ability and recognizes that, unlike many driving geniuses who tend to rely too much on their talents, Miles is also an analytical test driver, able to home in on what a car needs to become a winner.

The downside of Miles is apparent from the start of the film. A former tank commander in the British Army during World War II and now in his mid-40s, Miles frequently has moments of grouchiness, and at all times is a self-confident take-no-shit-from-anyone kinda guy. Exacerbating his prickliness is being overlooked by Ford in its first foray to France with the GT40. However, the Ford Motor Company acquiesces to Shelby’s wishes – by now it’s obvious the 42-year-old former USAAC test pilot and flight instructor from Leesburg, TX., knows what he’s doing – and Miles is hired to steer the GT40.

Immediately it pays dividends: Shelby American conquers the 1965 Daytona 2000km race (forerunner to the Daytona 24 Hours), with Miles partnering Indy car racing’s unluckiest driver of the ’60s, Lloyd Ruby, in the winning entry. Le Mans is lost once more to the car’s mechanical frailties, but in the inaugural Daytona round-the-clock classic the following February, the Miles/Ruby combo again triumphs, leading Dan Gurney/Jerry Grant in a Shelby 1-2. NASCAR team Holman-Moody, summoned to enter another GT40 by Ford executive Leo Beebe, finishes a distant third, despite the well-drilled crew performing much quicker pitstops. Beebe by now is the villain of the piece, given his apparently constant resistance to running Miles.

Miles and Ruby also clinch victory in the Sebring 12 Hours the following month driving the topless GT40, the X-1 roadster but then, infamously, Beebe’s orders screw with Miles’ fortune. With the Miles/Denny Hulme-driven GT40 dominating the 1966 Le Mans 24 Hours, Beebe orders a formation finish between the three Fords that are running 1-2-3 in the closing hours of the event. Our hero’s car has been delayed by brake issues – a bugbear of early GT40s – leading to an excessive number of pitstops, but remains a full lap clear of the second-placed GT40, another Shelby entry piloted by Chris Amon and Bruce McLaren which has suffered major tire issues earlier in the race.

After wrestling with his conscience, Shelby relates Beebe’s order to Miles who, after wrestling with his pride, accedes to his paymasters’ wishes and eases his searing pace by an almost preposterous margin. That allows McLaren to unlap himself, make up the whole lap and take up position alongside Miles as they try to produce a dead heat, while the third GT40 (Holman-Moody again) runs 12 laps down but hooks up with the leading pair. This is to be a Ford corporate triumph, and it’s hoped that the resultant photo opportunity as they pass the checkered flag will rub salt in the wound of Enzo Ferrari. 

Second spoiler alert… Because the McLaren/Amon car started the race a few feet behind the Miles/Hulme machine, it is decided by race organizers Automobile Club de L’Ouest that the all-Kiwi car covered greater distance over the course of 24 hours and is therefore the winning entry. Amon, who will go on to be the unluckiest driver in F1 history, thus achieves an embarrassingly fortunate victory in sportscars, while Miles is robbed of a richly deserved triumph, one that would have bestowed upon him the unique distinction of winning Daytona 24 Hours, Sebring 12 Hours and Le Mans 24 Hours in the same year.

A couple of months later, the Birmingham, UK-born ace is killed in a high-speed accident while testing a highly modified GT40 – the J-car – at Riverside Raceway in southern California.

Despite this feature clocking in at two-and-a-half hours, there is much to cover within the plot. The Shelby/Ford hook-up, Miles’ hiring and subsequent work with Phil Remington (played with suitably understated class by Ray McKinnon) to turn the GT40 from a good car into a great one, and of course the racing. Then of course Mangold must follow any director’s brief – to tell a compelling and memorable tale. That means developing the characters enough so that the audience cares what happens to them, serving up enough spectacle to entertain, and imparting insight into an environment that many cinema-goers won’t know well.

Those who recall Mangold’s sublime 1997 flick Cop Land will not be surprised that he carries off these tasks near faultlessly – although, let’s be honest, he’s blessed to be working with some of the finest actors in the business. It’s always a relief to see strong headline roles of individualism, quirkiness and charisma portrayed in a subtle and realistic manner; overacting, like a clunky script, drains so many films and TV series of their authenticity. Bale and Damon are as natural and plausible as single-minded but amusing mavericks as were Paul Newman and Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. You can be sure that Miles and Shelby would have been proud to see their personalities represented so memorably while avoiding caricature.

Bale blesses Miles with a heart-rending and admirable stoicism – notably in response to the insult and pain of being overlooked for the Le Mans squad in ’65 (yeah – ’64 in reality), and then again in the immediate aftermath of the ’66 race. After going through bemusement, disbelief and outrage, Miles handles himself with toweringly admirable poise – or at least, has no intention of taking it out on his friend Shelby. Damon’s depiction of Shelby’s discomfiture at passing on bad news to Miles is similarly impressive, as is his lack of histrionics in the Ford boardroom when convincing the decision-makers that, despite the marque’s humiliation at Le Mans in ’65, the program should continue.

Actually, while we’re on the topic, all boardroom episodes – the bits you might expect to be drab and dry – are entertaining, meaningful and handled with wit and intelligence, and particularly noteworthy is Jon Bernthal’s understated but solid performance as Iacocca.

Despite our being a racing website, this reviewer’s main interest heading into the screening of Ford v Ferrari was how it might present our favorite sport to those with only a sketchy knowledge of racing. Well, rest assured: the strength of the tale, and the inclusion of Damon and Bale in fine form, should ensure the movie reaches an audience that might otherwise have remained unaware of one of America’s greatest sporting triumphs in Europe. However, devotees who genuinely recall motorsport in the 1960s will also feel well served as they’re wrapped in a sepia-tinged yet glorious technicolor blanket of nostalgia, with beautiful sets and dialog that convey the pleasant blend of importance and informality that seemed to surround top-rank racing in those days.

The violence of the crashes, and the knowledge that cars were so much less safe five decades ago, will cause all to acknowledge the dark side of racing, and empathize with Miles’ wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) and their son Peter (Noah Jupe). No sports drama is complete without chronicling how an elite athlete’s dedication takes a toll on family life, but in Ford v Ferrari, such scenes aren’t too heavy-handed. Miles is reserved but loving in a slightly clumsy way, Mollie is supportive but no-nonsense, Peter enthusiastic and understandably slightly in awe of his old man. Their presence is the screenwriters’ reminder that a racecar driver is not a dull automaton but someone who has a life and responsibilities away from the track. Miles needs racing for his life to make sense, and needs racing in his life to make cents.

Since the purpose of a film, even one based on a true story, is primarily to entertain and enlighten, it’s important to not allow in-built knowledge of the subject matter to refract and distort objective analysis of a movie’s qualities. That said, as well as the aforementioned historical grumble, there are one or two other elements that may slightly chafe with race fans.

In the early onboard sequences set in SCCA competition, the sound isn’t synched properly with the images. Unless he was piloting the remarkable Brabham BT46B ‘fan car’ of 1978 or one of the 2011-’13 Red Bulls with an exhaust blown diffuser – both car types that required early and counter-intuitive application of the throttle to increase aerodynamic grip at corner entry – there’s no way Miles could be so injudicious with the gas pedal and stay on the track.

During a nighttime test of the GT40 at LAX which ends with Miles crashing, the overheating brakes are illustrated by an almost cartoon-like visual effect, while Daytona’s ‘switch’ to Fontana’s Auto Club Speedway is a little too obvious, as are the SAFER barriers… By contrast, the nighttime and/or rain sequences supposedly at Le Mans are very well done.

Those who enjoy motorsport history would probably welcome a little more credit for both Ruby and Hulme as Miles’ co-drivers, and they may bristle slightly at Francesco Bauco playing Lorenzo Bandini as a somewhat supercilious and sneering ‘accomplice’ of Enzo Ferrari. By all accounts, Bandini was a warm-hearted gentleman. The sight of Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) attending Le Mans will also make motorsport cognoscenti sniff derisively, given his reluctance to attend any races following the loss of his son Dino to muscular dystrophy in 1956. Perhaps it would be best to think of Girone’s character as a combination of the Old Man and his notoriously autocratic team manager of the time, Eugenio Dragoni.

Many may regard the last three paragraphs as a reviewer caviling over innocuous details, while others may be at the opposite end of the spectrum, adding these quibbles to the unnecessary confusion over the ’64/’65 Wyer/Shelby/Miles situation and deciding they amount to deal breakers. To those in the former category, one can only say that it’s important to remain objective despite huge positivity for the project. Those in the latter camp should stop bouncing off their mental rev limiters and take 2.5 hours out of their lives to enjoy the artistry of Mangold, Bale, Damon and more.

Ford v Ferrari will stand alongside Rush as a well realized modern-day take of a bygone era in racing and one that is to be treasured at a time when motorsport – despite its occasional attempts at claiming green credentials and appealing to Generation Next – is on a reassuringly gradual but still inevitable slide into irrelevancy. It features some unexpected quirks that may be courtesy of the director, the authors or perhaps the editors, Michael McCusker and Andrew Buckland. For instance, who would expect a film that evokes so much poignancy whenever Miles is wronged to not include a funeral scene following his tragic and gut-wrenching demise? The obvious is avoided and replaced by a wonderfully stilted yet emotional conversation between Shelby and Miles’ young son Peter.

The take-homes from Ford v Ferrari are these. We witness Shelby’s relationship with Miles evolve from respect to admiration and from admiration to friendship, and we see how Shelby’s determination to do the right thing by both his pal and Ford gets overruled by company politics. Mangold also provides proof that a male-bonding movie need not contain syrupy and cringe-worthy bromantic moments by instead portraying the Shelby-Miles bond as being akin to those between Rob Walker and Stirling Moss, Colin Chapman and Jimmy Clark or Roger Penske and Mark Donohue.

The heartbreaking hook, of course, is that unlike those dynamic duos that came to worldwide attention before Fate’s intervention, this one – through no fault of the two individuals concerned – didn’t earn the results it deserved and thus its significance faded over the past 53 years. Ford v Ferrari has beautifully righted that wrong, ironically, with an artful depiction of injustice.

You’d never guess that from the title, though…

See also…

Trailer for Ford v Ferrari which opens today in theaters across the U.S.

The real star of Ford v Ferrari – the 1966 Le Mans winning Ford GT40

Rediscovered – Ford's lost footage from 1966 Le Mans

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Series Le Mans , General
Author David Malsher