Ford v Ferrari, director James Mangold's tale of the Ford Motor Company's attempt to build a faster race car than Ferrari in the 1960s, is a rare, high-octane blend of art and entertainment. Excluding Steven Spielberg, they just don't make movies like this anymore.
Probably the most visually impressive film ever made about auto-racing, Ford v Ferrari is the type of picture you would have expected real-life racecar enthusiasts Paul Newman and Steve McQueen to have made together. Newman starred in 1969's Winning (about the Indianapolis 500), and McQueen did 1971's Le Mans (about the famous 24-hour French race). But when the legendary actors finally got together in 1974, they made The Towering Inferno. (I'm still burning up about that lost opportunity.)
Fast-forward 45 years, and two equally accomplished performers (Matt Damon and Christian Bale) are picking up where Newman and McQueen should have left off: on the track at Le Mans. In Mangold's new action-dramedy, Damon stars as Carroll Shelby, an automotive designer and engineer forced to hang up his racing helmet after being diagnosed with a heart condition. Realizing Shelby's talent, Ford executives ask him to lead their new racing division, which they hope will unseat Ferrari as the champions of Le Mans.
But Shelby needs a driver, and though his friend Ken Miles (Bale) is a loose cannon, the two understand each other. And no one is better behind the wheel. It's an unlikely partnership, but defeating Ferrari has become a vendetta for Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), after his bid to buy Ferrari was rudely snubbed by the company's founder. It's a fun, riveting story of revenge, ambition, pride and friendship – made more remarkable because it's mostly true.
Mangold has been helming films since 1995 but is often forgotten in discussions of today's most versatile directors. With Kate & Leopold, Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma, Logan and now Ford v Ferrari, let's hope that oversight is corrected. But filmmaking, like racing, is a group effort, and Mangold's pit crew is finely tuned, from the writing team of Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller, to cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, to editors Michael McCusker and Andrew Buckland, to production designer François Audouy, to the countless special-effects creators, who blend traditional effects with CGI. Listing names might not make for a sexy film review, but Ford v Ferrari represents the height of cinematic sexiness, and time should be taken to thank everyone.
The performers are due commendations too. Damon is superb, and if the 2019 acting field weren't already bursting with potential Oscar nominees, one would declare Damon a lock for a nod. Though Bale's performance is a tad broad, it's impossible to look away, as usual. But it's the hilarious and heartfelt Letts, better known as a playwright, who is my early favorite for best supporting actor. And in the spirit of universal congratulations, praise should also go to Caitriona Balfe as Miles' wife, Noah Jupe as his son, Ray McKinnon as Shelby's friend and co-worker, Jon Bernthal as Lee Iacocca and Josh Lucas as the closest thing to a (humorous) villain.
Like Le Mans, this film is loud and long, so pick a theater with great sound and projection. And though the story doesn't quite stick its ending – to mix sports metaphors – I predict it will finish in your top 10 of 2019.
– This story appears in the Nov. 13, 2019, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.