Dir: James Mangold. Starring: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Jon Bernthal, Caitriona Balfe, Tracy Letts. PG, 152 mins
From the macho posturing and talk of warfare to the various kiss-off lines about engine speed, James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari (aka Le Mans ’66) feels as though it runs on testosterone as much as it does gasoline. The film follows the partnership between car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and the very appropriately named racer Ken Miles (Christian Bale) as they build the famous Ford GT40, the only American automobile to date to win Le Mans. While the film reaches moments of genuine thrills in its depiction of the perilous car testing on the way to even more perilous races, Ford v Ferrari has a long running time, but still somehow feels undercooked.
Bale has strong chemistry with Damon, but, outside of their relationship and their various arguments with the “suits”, the writing is unconvincing – indeed, the bulk of the characters feel like an afterthought. Perhaps the most fascinating element of Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth’s script explores the clash between creativity and corporate culture. Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), in order to better compete with Ferrari, hires an eccentric, talented team, but then refuses to place his faith in their decisions.
The relationships between the designers and their corporate overlords at Ford could be compared to those between filmmakers and production companies, the desire to create something unique coming into conflict with a desire to sell something. To these boardroom committees, the film argues, hiring someone means owning them. If this sounds a bit dry, it helps that the racing itself is exciting: all fast, furious and full of twisted metal. Mangold does well to maintain a sense of peril as well as make the 24 Hours of Le Mans race something that’s visually compelling and exciting, even to those not enthusiastic about the sport.
It’s a film that feels as though it was developed in a lab for dads, a kind of Right Stuff for petrolheads. It takes great pleasure in detailing the process that makes incredible feats of engineering happen, as well as the danger that these creators face. It’s in these moments that the film fires on all cylinders, propelled by strong personalities and fast cars. It’s a shame that the rest feels so slight.
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