TIFF REVIEW – ‘Ford v Ferrari’ is the rare racing film with far more going for it than just what happens on the racetrack

Standing as one of the year’s more misleading titles, Ford v Ferrari is far from the film you may be expecting. Sure, the inherent plot is the true-life battle of America’s mighty Ford Motor Co. versus the Italian goliath of sportscar racing. But at the very heart of this film is an endearing and wildly entertaining tale of the two men behind the machines, played with terrific gusto by two of the best in the game.

With plenty of technical motor racing jargon and several exhilarating race sequences, there’s more than enough here to fire up the engines of revhead fanatics. However, for those of us who see cars as nothing more than a piece of metal to get us from A to B, the impeccably crafted Ford v Ferrari proves to be the rare example of a racing film with far more going for it than just what happens on the racetrack.

It’s the 1960s and there’s one dominant force in the field of international motor racing. With sleek designs and incredible speed, the team at Ferrari are untouchable. Meanwhile, in the commercial car industry, Ford is starting to lose its vice-like grip on the market, particularly with the younger demographic.

After a desperate plea for fresh ideas from Henry Ford II (the ever-reliable Tracy Letts), the cripplingly insecure Ford heir and current CEO, vice-president Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) presents the bold idea for the car company to jump into the world of motor racing by simply buying out Ferrari, and, more importantly, its Scuderia Ferrari racing division.

But when Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) harshly dismisses the proposal, calling Ford’s cars sloppy and ugly and its CEO fat and stupid, an incensed Ford quickly becomes determined to spend whatever it takes to end Ferrari’s dominance on the racing world, particularly their unbroken winning streak at France’s legendary Le Mans 24-hour endurance race.

Enter Caroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a former racing champ whose heart problems ended his once illustrious career, leading to a post-racing life in automotive design. After being enlisted by Iacocca to head Ford’s new racing division, Shelby insists there’s only one man up for the task of winning Le Mans in a Ford car; temperamental British racer Ken Miles (Christian Bale).

Despite an impressive racing career himself, Miles has found himself working as a humble mechanic in Los Angeles, where he resides with his adoring wife, Mollie (an empathetic Caitriona Balfe) and their young son, Peter (Noah Jupe). With a fiery temper and a damaged reputation, Miles is far from the PR dream Ford had in mind. But Shelby is steadfastly determined Miles is his man, and thus the battle to take down the Italian superpower is on.

On its surface, Ford v Ferrari certainly reads like a rather narrow narrative that’s likely only to appeal to those who know their fan belts from their piston crankpins (yes, I had to look that up). For motoring fans, this film will undoubtedly work on an entirely different level. With all the technical mumbo-jumbo that goes into the conception, planning, testing, and implementation of automotive design, car enthusiasts will lap this film up.

Surprisingly, these more mechanically-minded moments will still prove rather fascinating for those of us with little knowledge of the racing world. In a time before technology obviously made this process far easier, these sequences are a glowing tribute to the men who designed racing cars from scratch with little more than a pencil and paper, supplemented by their impressive intellect for everything motor-related.

With a series of masterfully created racing sequences that offer genuine edge-of-your-seat cinema, there are enough thrills and spills to capture the attention of an audience who would never normally find themselves sitting down to watch an actual motor racing event. That in itself is a major victory. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael shoots these scenes with sweeping majesty, often switching to the POV of Miles to really place us in the driver’s seat. Complemented by seamless CGI work, motor racing has never looked more cinematically flawless.

It also helps Ford v Ferrari is one of the loudest films you’ll see this year. And rightly so. With thunderous surround sound design to rattle the entire cinema, this is as authentic as motor racing comes. If nothing else, you can jot this film down for nominations in both Sound categories at the Oscars. It’s rare to implore an audience to seek out an awards contender at the cinema, but this is one film that demands to be seen theatrically.

With such a gargantuan length, Le Mans is a tricky beast to twist into something cinematically thrilling, but director James Mangold certainly gives it a red-hot try. This isn’t a sprint. It’s a marathon. And there’s nothing all that exciting about a race that runs for an entire day, particularly one with an outcome we can easily predict. Thankfully, screenwriters Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller find the drama elsewhere, as Miles and Shelby butt heads with the big wigs of Ford on just how their race will be run.

Where the screenplay falls apart is its disappointing portrayal of several supporting characters who are strangely turned into cartoonish villains or oafish buffoons. Accurate or not, Ferrari himself is presented as a one-note pompous, impudent twat. Most of the Ford corporation are written as brainless suits with no insight into the motoring industry, particularly executive Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) who’s portrayed as so wildly petty, he would rather see Miles lose the race, just to prove a point.

For all its extravagant set pieces, Ford v Ferrari is ultimately an acting masterclass from Bale and Damon who both offer further terrific performances to their already-terrific careers. In a performance with echoes of his Oscar-winning turn in The Fighter, Bale has the showier role here, meaning he’ll likely get the awards attention. Miles is an eccentric hothead with a wicked temper and an impetuous attitude; something Bale always handles with aplomb. As frustrating as Miles can be, Bale finds the pathos in a character whose destiny is only haltered by his failure to play by the rules.

With a Southern drawl and ten-gallon cowboy hat, Shelby is the total anthesis to Miles. He’s the good ol’ boy who would be the one behind the wheel, if it wasn’t for his bum ticker. Damon is given the lion’s share of the film’s more dramatic moments, including several confrontational scenes where his performance lifts beyond his boyish charm. While it’s not as flashy a performance as Bale’s, Damon is equally impressive here, gifted with more light and shade to play with.

The two make a sensational pairing, begging the question of why they haven’t worked together sooner. While it’s clear there’s a deep friendship forming, there’s a hefty dose of conflict between Miles and Shelby, typified by the most ridiculous “fight” scene you will see this year. There’s endearing chemistry between Bale and Damon, crafting one of the best double acts cinema has offered in 2019.

In such a testosterone-driven film, it’s incredibly pleasing to see Ford v Ferrari craft its only female character completely against expectation. The wives of sports stars are so often portrayed as pearl-clutching battleaxes, constantly standing in the way of their husband’s crazy ambitions. In an entirely charming performance, Balfe is pleasingly given a spouse who’s entirely supportive of Miles, so long as he’s honest with her. Despite her understandable apprehensions, Mollie is never anything other than Miles’ partner in crime, which is so ridiculously refreshing to see.

At two-and-a-half hours, Ford v Ferrari is probably a touch longer than it really needed to be. While the climactic finale focuses on the Le Mans race, the middle stretch portrays another 24-hour endurance race at Daytona, which ultimately proves to be far more entertaining, somewhat robbing the finale of its intended excitement. It’s not the film’s fault history dictates how the two races were run. Yet, it’s inescapable one offers far more tense intrigue, and it’s not the race this film is mostly focused on.

But Ford v Ferrari almost entirely peaks in the middle, making what follows less cinematically effective. Regardless, the film brings it home with a conclusion that will hit you like a tonne of bricks. If you know nothing of this story, there are several twists to this tale you will not see coming. It’s unfathomable to think a motor racing film can make you cry, but just brace yourselves for impact.

For all their pomp and circumstance, the greatest sports films wisely focus their attention on the sportsmen rather than just the sport itself. And that’s entirely what makes Ford v Ferrari such a roaring success. The necessary outrageous racing set-pieces provide the thrilling entertainment, but the downright inspiring and engaging story of Miles and Shelby offers much more than meets the eye.

Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Cast: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Jon Bernthal, Caitriona Balfe, Tracy Letts, Josh Lucas, Noah Jupe, Remo Girone, Ray McKinnon, JJ Field, Jack McMullen
Director: James Mangold
Producers: Peter Chernin, James Mangold, Jenno Topping
Screenplay: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, Jason Keller
Cinematography: Phedon Papamichael
Production Design: Francois Audouy
Costume Design: Daniel Orlandi
Music: Marco Beltrami, Buck Sanders

Editing: Michael McCusker, Andrew Buckland
Running Time: 152 minutes
Release Date: 14th November 2019 (Australia)

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