Win on Sunday, sell on Monday. For decades, that was the mantra of every automaker that sponsored a racing team. For the conventional wisdom was that, if your race cars could fly around the track on weekends, consumer models would fly out the showroom door during the following week.
In the late 1950s and early ‘60s, Ferrari ruled Formula One racing, and especially Le Mans, the crown jewel of the F1 circuit. The Italian car maker chalked up nine wins there between 1949 and 1965, including a string of six consecutive victories in the early sixties. No other automaker even came close during the same period.
At Ford Motor Company, Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), a midlevel executive who went on to chair Ford and later Chrysler, was an early convert to the win-and-sell philosophy. But Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), the founder’s grandson, was daunted by the amount of time and money it would take to build a racing program from the ground up. His solution: buy Ferrari and Voila! Instant dominance.
Suffice it to say, the Ferrari acquisition falls through, rather spectacularly, as it happens. Ford, as furious as any woman spurned, decides to “go to war” with Ferrari.
Enter Carroll Shelby (Academy Award winner Matt Damon), a racer who won Le Mans in 1959, then abruptly retired from racing due to a dodgy ticker. Already a legendary race car builder, he is tapped to wage Ford’s war.
Ford v. Ferrari focuses not only on Ford’s war but also on the relationship between Shelby and Australian driver Ken Miles (Academy Award winner Christian Bale), which can be best described as a sibling rivalry. A prickly sort who definitely marches to the beat of his drummer, Miles is unable to break into big-time racing because the automakers and other sponsors consider him too temperamental. But Shelby, an uncompromising perfectionist who understands what it takes to win (“We’re lighter, we’re faster. And if that don’t work, we’re nastier.”), knows Miles has a deep wellspring of talent and desire and decides to harness it.
And so the battle is joined, and not without complications. Ford’s nemesis, of course, is Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone), the old-school yet savvy Commendatore of the manufacturing and racing complex that bears his name. Girone shows us that Ferrari is no stranger to hardball. Yet Shelby and Miles have a nemesis of their own, Ford executive Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas). An opportunistic, backstabbing sycophant who’s all about selling on Monday, he is pitted against the racers, who are all about win on Sunday. Reminiscent of the mustachioed villain in a silent movie, Lucas arguably overplays his part, but to good effect.
The intertwining of the Shelby-Miles and Ford-Ferrari storylines works splendidly, broadening this movie’s appeal to an audience far beyond the motorheads you’d expect to gravitate toward it. There’s even a romantic subplot of sorts, centering on Miles’s relationship with his long-suffering wife, Mollie (Outlander star Caitriona Balfe). Quietly exasperated by her family’s hand-to-mouth existence and bemused by Ken’s mercurial relationship with Carroll, she blossoms when her emotions unexpectedly get the best of her. She is at her best when her husband and his mentor fight like two schoolboys while she watches from a lawn chair. That scene alone is almost worth the price of admission.
Based on a script by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller, Ford v. Ferrari is not without its flaws. You could drive a Ferrari through some of the plot holes. Why, for example, is Shelby intrigued that another team has a NASCAR pit crew when that factoid goes nowhere? His relationship with Miles seems to have sprung fully formed from Zeus’s brow. What is its backstory?
In its defense, however, the racing scenes seem very realistic, though I could have done with fewer closeups of feet on pedals and hands on gearshifts. The action, especially the crashes, was hair-raising enough to make me glad I wasn’t a stunt driver in this movie.
Yes, there are bumps in the road, but Ford v. Ferrari runs like a well-oiled machine, acquits itself smartly on balance, and makes good time to the finish line.
Peter Howell is the former Star Democrat entertainment editor and film critic