In 'Ford v Ferrari,' Action Takes a Back Seat to Drama

In ‘Ford v Ferrari,’ Christian Bale and Matt Damon step into the shoes of the designers and drivers of a historic racing car, and the director’s focus on character development make the action sequences all the more gripping

Christian Bale, right, and Matt Damon in a scene from "Ford v. Ferrari."
Merrick Morton,AP

Henry Ford fomented a world revolution. It wasn’t a matter of a particular patent or invention of one kind or another. Ford saw the big picture. In 1908, he unveiled the Model T automobile, which was revolutionary not so much in technology as in consciousness. The promise he made sounded amusing and unattainable: a car for every worker. Ford’s cars augured a cultural and political transformation in the perception of the average citizen. Freedom of movement ceased to be a merely theoretical concept and became accessible to most folks. Ford became one of the great pioneers of the entire Industrial Revolution.

That family baggage was inherited by the founder’s grandson, Henry Ford II. That’s not merely an anecdote; it’s the catalyst of the film “Ford v Ferrari,” which is based on a true story. The new James Mangold picture is ostensibly about the highly competitive, dangerous world of car racing in the 1960s, but its plot focuses largely on the development stages of the car itself. It’s about the trial and error the effort required, and the difficulty of realizing an ambitious vision alone or in a group.

With a script by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller (most of the prior experience of all three was in the theater), the foundation is laid for a motorized action movie that conceals a sensitive drama. Director, screenwriters and stars – Matt Damon and Christian Bale – have chosen the racetrack to peel away layers in the personality of two individuals who made history.

The plot opens and ends with the legendary, grueling race known as “24 Hours of Le Mans.” In contrast to well-known races such as Daytona, which are effectively a never-ending left turn, Le Mans is portrayed as a race through a deceptive, dangerous rural region. The route had been dominated almost unchallenged for several years by Enzo Ferrari, the motor racing driver and entrepreneur who manufactured the iconic car bearing his name.

In the 1960s, the Ford company was coping with crippling challenges generated by a crowded, changing market. Competition in Detroit was cutting into profits as public taste veered toward the lean, sporting aesthetic that arrived from Europe, notably the curves of the Ferrari. The situation spawned a marketing idea: to get into car racing and instill a sexy spirit into an outdated brand. Henry Ford II wanted to record a singular accomplishment in his name and escape from the shadow of his illustrious grandfather.

Chasing a dream

Recruited to design the car and lead the project was Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a successful racing driver who had won at Le Mans in 1959. That was a major achievement for an American in European sports, but a medical problem forced Shelby to retire and embark on a second career as a racing car designer. When he suddenly gets the opportunity to fulfill a dream – to form and shape his own group – he recruits his racetrack buddy and rival, Ken Miles (Christian Bale). He, too, has given up his dream and is trying to come to terms with an unprofitable reality and support his wife, Mollie (Caitriona Balfe, from the “Outlander” drama series), and their son.

Christian Bale in "Ford v. Ferrari."
Merrick Morton/AP

The two friends don’t always see eye to eye about designing the new car, and their temperaments are different, but their obsessive love of the steering wheel keeps them on course together. The main challenge lies in dealing with the money people. The pragmatic Shelby knows when to compromise, while the grumbling, uncurbed Miles makes the executives uneasy. The film thus cruises along from development to snafu, from snafu to accident and from accident to learning the lessons. By concentrating on this angle more than on racing as such, Mangold is able to flesh out the Shelby-Miles relationship emotionally and dramatically. Their clear and declared adversary is of course a Ferrari driver who’s waiting for them in Le Mans, but that stage is only the end of the process and might never happen. Before that, they have to build a racing car from scratch and try not to die because of a misplaced screw while test-driving it.

The duo’s choice puts them to the test, though both of them are less concerned about the possibility of dying in the flames of a crash, or even about losing the race, than about compromising on the project. Which is why the encounter between Shelby and Miles, who are sportsmen as much as artists of industrial design, turns out to be twice as painful. They’re in harmony on the artistic and sportive passion, but disagree when compromise is necessary. The compromises are mandated by the commercial logic of racing cars, which rests on corporate support – and in the corporation everyone is more interested in getting promoted than in the company’s fortunes. It’s tempting to see this also as a critique of the creative process in Hollywood, where artistic impulse is perpetually clashing with commercial considerations.

“Ford v Ferrari” is not a car-racing film in the spirit of “Le Mans,” a 1971 film with Steve McQueen, where the sports action was at the center. The new movie is in fact about car racing, but that is not its hub. Fast-moving cars appear in almost every scene, and the action is an important element in forging the drama and tension. Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography counterbalances the dynamics and dangers of cars hurtling at peak speed with the slowness, weightiness and frustration of a tired driver. Although there is no visual resemblance to “Logan,” Mangold’s previous film, the pace and the tone recall the “Logan” movie of the Wolverine series. Again, Mangold is sparing with the action in favor of character development, a choice that pays off. When the dramatic and emotional thrust is at its peak, the action is also more gripping. It’s a lesson that Mangold has applied well in his latest films.

The narrative, like the characters, is propelled by internal contradictions, which receive restrained and precise expression. Bale’s Miles encapsulates this vividly as the war hero who traded in the dangers of rank for the risks of the racing car. Even though he’s English, Miles embodies rough-hewn American individualism. But he’s not a lone cowboy, he’s a player in a group. He can’t defeat Ferrari’s perfect car on his own.

The big boss mentions a Ford factory where most of the American bombers that took part in World War II were manufactured. The message is not that man will triumph over the machine, nor is it the opposite: that of a merger between man and machine, between creativity and capitalism. Miles is not an incorrigible individualist. Precisely the ability to compromise and play the group and corporate game, with the price it exacts, offers Bale the opportunity to imbue Miles with heartrending emotional heft. He projects a humanity that arouses identification, more than with any character he’s played in recent years.

The character played by Matt Damon – a man’s man Texan with no small ego of his own – is also sensitively and persuasively written, with an excellent delivery by the actor. Shelby is cut from the same cloth as Miles, only he retired ahead of him and is thus a few steps ahead of him on the domestication front.

That’s not to say he has forgotten his origins as a racecar driver. The Ford bigwigs don’t want the loud-mouthed Miles behind the wheel, but Shelby is not willing to forgo his ace driver. Still, he also understands the money angle – an approach that leaves him divided between two conflicting worldviews, both of which he believes in. Also deserving of mention is Balfe: she is given a truncated part but one that’s rich enough to continue to address internal contradictions and allow her to transcend the “wife of” stereotype.

In focusing on the emotional axis between two men with one passion, Mangold continues his genre-bending efforts to address the symbolic level of the American ethos – notably the balance between rugged individualism and collective imperial power. In the hands of a different type of director, “Ford v Ferrari” could easily have been an action-driven racing movie geared to the spirit of the sport. However, by zooming in on one relationship, with a sensitive script and two talented stars giving wonderful, nuance-filled performances, Mangold delivers a fine, smart film. Not a masterpiece, not a distinctive vision, but still the director’s best work so far. It’s one of those films that needs to be seen on a big screen with a bombastic sound system. Like his two protagonists, Mangold, too, shows that he may be working in the service of a Hollywood corporation, but is striving for minimum compromises.