After 11 months of dull 2019 blockbusters unlikely to inspire you to do more than check your watch, Ford v Ferrari zips into theaters to finally quicken your pulse. James Mangold, writer-director of Logan and director of 3:10 to Yuma (2007), delivers the blockbuster of the year in a prestigious, Gulf Oil blue alloy chassis.
With sales dipping at the Ford Motor Company in the early ‘60s, Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) proposes that the company lean into faster, cooler cars for the Baby Boomers, a generation of young, licensed drivers. Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) initially scoffs at the idea before sending Lee to Italy to buy struggling Ferrari. Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) uses Ford’s pitch as leverage for Fiat, who would go on to buy Ferrari, and insults Lee and Ford himself before dismissing Lee. Ford, outraged by this slight, signs a blank check for Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a sports car designer and former race car driver, to build a car to compete with Ferrari.
Shelby begins working with Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a friend, mechanic, and race car driver, to build a machine to beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mons. The 24-hour endurance race had been dominated by Ferrari, with the company winning four of the previous five races. Shelby, Ken, and Ray McKinnon (Phil Remington) engineer, test, and innovate the Ford GT40 with significant resistance both on- and off-the-track from Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), an executive at Ford. The team competes against both leadership at Ford and the car designers at Ferrari to attempt to win Le Mons.
Originally scheduled for release on June 28, Ford v Ferrari’s absence from peak popcorn movie season was tangible. Disney dominated the summer with longstanding intellectual property, including The Lion King, Toy Story 4, and two Marvel movies (Avengers: Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home). Ironically, Ford v. Ferrari’s move to a November release was an award-season motivated change by distributor 20th Century Fox, but when Disney purchased Fox in March, the move saved Disney from cannibalizing its own summer box office haul.
Oscar-nominated cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (Nebraska) captures the thrill of motorsport, the heat of the cockpit, and the intense speed of the vehicles. Those unfamiliar or uninterested in racing will be equally as enraptured as hardcore fans. Mangold’s adeptly translates the power and unforgiving nature of his subject supercars while maintaining an accessible, jargon-lite story for newcomers.
The movie suffers when peripheral characters like Ken’s wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) and Lucas’s downright evil depiction of Leo Beebe are on screen. Balfe and Lucas are strong performers, but the writing fails them. Mollie’s screen time is split between the dreaded cool girl and nagging wife tropes.
Leo, meanwhile, is an overbearing antagonistic force throughout the film. To compete in a 24-hour race, teams of at least two drivers are required. To input additional scenes of Leo’s mustache-twirling villainy, Denny Hulme (Ben Collins), the team’s second driver, is lost to the editing bay.
Ford v Ferrari’s central pathos is rooted in its two leads. Damon and Bale, soaking up the script to a degree that borders on hammy, are larger-than-life, charismatic movie stars. Damon, who has made a living in mid-budget movies, hasn’t flexed his movie star muscles since 2016’s Jason Bourne or 2015’s The Martian. Bale relishes the same opportunity.
Mangold, who has found a niche in reliably stylish and brainy blockbusters, adds to a quietly illustrious career with Ford v Ferrari. Gearheads, dads, and regular moviegoers alike can appreciate the year’s best movie star-led action thriller.