Ford v Ferrari review: Bale and Damon in winning form for racing romp

Christian Bale and Matt Damon keep the pedal to the metal in this race to Le Mans '66.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
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Matt Damon and Christian Bale don shades as racing legends Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles.

Twentieth Century Fox

New racing movie Ford v Ferrari has the same engine and follows the same track as other racing films. But like a successful race car, it shows that if you tune a movie just right and put the right people behind the wheel, it goes like hell.

In the true story of a famous four-wheeled feud, Matt Damon and Christian Bale play real-life racing legends recruited by a moribund  Motor Company to build a car that will revive the American company's fortunes. To do that, they have to break the motorsport stranglehold of the Italian stallions at  Ferrari , which requires some good old-fashioned American grit, muscle and general grease-stained manliness. 

The film is called Ford v Ferrari, but that's not really an accurate title, because the battle between Ford and Ferrari is only the framework of this true story. In the UK, restrictions on brand names mean the film's called Le Mans '66, but that isn't quite accurate either, because the famous 24-hour endurance race is merely what lies at the end of the road.

Really, it's Ford v Ford. Profit v respect. Stuffed shirts v real racers. Not so much Le Mans as man v man.

The movie begins in 1959, when race cars were rickety, rattly machines. Matt Damon plays Le Mans winner Carroll Shelby, a real-life motoring maverick with a literally burning desire to win in the first of several hair-raising racing scenes. Logan director James Mangold turns your chair into a driver's seat as the camera skims over the road, mere inches off the asphalt. Windshield barely visible, gears clunking, engine roaring, each lap is a visceral, thrilling experience pulled off by pin-point editing and muscular sound design as you live in that split second between victory and brutal car-shredding crashes.

Ford v Ferrari has fun with the noble notion that racing is all about the connection between man and machine, a battle between men, not the machines that carry them. It's all about instinct, a pure vision, a quest for the perfect lap -- even if you have to risk your life to do it.

Equally, however, it's a film that expands beyond the racetrack to look at the swerves and curves of sporting politics and economics.

But the real victory is that it's just fun.


Christian Bale's winning smile.

Twentieth Century Fox

The movie celebrates racing while poking fun at the childish compulsion to go faster, and is happy to admit these men are risking their lives because they're essentially boys with toys. Toys that frequently blow up and kill the driver, but still. One scene sees Bale and Damon's prickly friendship spill over into a hilarious schoolboy tussle, while the camaraderie and rivalry between drivers is summed up by Bale relentlessly heckling his opponents in a thick British accent -- complete with endearing Britishisms like, "Learn to drive you pillock!" You may want to remember that one the next time you get behind the wheel.

Bale plays straight-talking racer Ken Miles, who had been a tank commander in WW2 -- which is ironic since he's portrayed as a man who can never walk away from a battle even if it means losing the war. Damon's character Shelby, literally heartbroken by the end of his racing career, has learned to play the game a little better, and he brings Miles along when Ford comes looking for a winning car. The race is on, and it's not just the artfully designed racers of Ferrari they need to beat: Shelby and Miles clash repeatedly with Ford's staid corporate culture.

That's the real story of Ford v Ferrari. The instinct of a pure racer versus the groupthink of a boardroom of stuffed shirts.

While we're meant to side with Bale and Damon's free-wheeling masculinity, it's worth noting they're both a bit of a dick. Damon plays a cowboy-hatted show-off who isn't above dirty tricks in the pit lane, while Bale goes around throwing tools and then driving like one.


Matt Damon hits the pits.

Twentieth Century Fox

It doesn't help that the film tries to sell us that the underdog in this situation is Ford, the vastly wealthy mass-production corporation, rather than Ferrari. As much as Miles and Shelby are likably irreverent, it's still a brazen attempt by the huge corporation to buy trophies and sell cars. Meanwhile, the Ferrari team is not-so-subtly depicted in the style of the Mafia, as swarthy and silent Italian racers presided over by a brooding godfather.

Basically, it's Top Gear: The Movie. 

Because this is a historical biopic about manly men doing manly things, one of our heroes has the mandatory nagging wife at home. To be fair, Outlander star Caitriona Balfe has more to play with than many wives in this kind of film -- at least she gets to crack a smile unlike, say, Claire Foy in First Man. But all too often she's there to disagree with her husband, even if it's contradictory -- one minute she wants him to keep racing, the next to give up.

Speaking of biopic cliches, of course we get the scene where the hero can't sleep the night before the big day, and of course throughout the big race we cut back to the family breathlessly watching at home. Still, you can't beat this kind of mid-century biopic for vintage Americana. It's stuffed with classic cars and classic clothes, lovingly re-created period details like slim ties, knitted shirts and endless gleaming sunglasses -- and of course era-defining sleekly curved and throatily growling automobiles  such as the deeply sexy Ford GT40 Mark II.

Even if it speeds around familiar corners as many similar movies, Ford v Ferrari is a winner.

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Originally published Nov. 13.