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Car-racing flick fun but formulaic

Testosterone-fuelled drama follows 1966 Le Mans race

photos by Fox</p><p>Ford v Ferrari is based on Ford’s entrance into the 1966 24-hour Le Mans race after the automaker was insulted by the head of Ferrari.</p></p>

photos by Fox

Ford v Ferrari is based on Ford’s entrance into the 1966 24-hour Le Mans race after the automaker was insulted by the head of Ferrari.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/11/2019 (318 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The car scenes in this fact-based sports movie are good, and you don’t even have to be a motorhead to appreciate them. When driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) and automotive designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) start talking torque and drag and r.p.m.s, their interest becomes interesting. Their tinkerer’s curiosity, their purist passion, their mystical devotion to speed are irresistible.

Add in cool period detailing and skilfully shot race scenes from director James Mangold (Logan, 3:10 to Yuma) who favours ground-level grit over CGI slickness, and the car stuff in Ford v Ferrari is compelling.

The human being stuff, however, lags behind, and the overly formulaic narrative drags as it approaches the 152-minute finish line.

Brotherly scripting team Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow) are using a real-life story to explore masculine bonding and masculine competition.

We get lots of 1960s-era testosterone shot through with a certain amount of 2019 anxiety.

The story starts with auto manufacturer Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), who’s worried about "taking it in the tailpipe from Chrysler."

A young Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) suggests the Ford company can regain its declining market share with a big win on the international racing circuit, which will shift its branding from stolid family station wagons to something fast, sexy, glamorous and dangerous.

Fox</p><p>Christian Bale as British driver Ken Miles, who was hired by Ford to race in 1966.</p>

Fox

Christian Bale as British driver Ken Miles, who was hired by Ford to race in 1966.

"James Bond doesn’t drive a Ford," Iacocca points out. "James Bond is a degenerate," Mr. Ford replies.

Still, when Ford hears that Enzo Ferrari has insulted him, contemptuously comparing him to his father, his wounded ego prevails. Ford wants to win the 1966 Le Mans, a punishing 24-hour race that Ferrari has been dominating, and he brings in Shelby and Miles to help him.

As English-born engineer and driver Ken Miles, the often super-intense Bale is uncompromising and difficult but also unexpectedly fun, with quite a line in obscure British slang. Damon is less convincing. With a drawling but abrupt Texas accent, he sometimes seems to be doing a Tommy Lee Jones impersonation. (It’s a pretty good Tommy Lee Jones impersonation, but still.)

Caitriona Balfe does what she can as Mollie Miles. The Butterworths seem to be trying to avoid the usual watch-and-wait wife role, so Mollie gets a scene where she also gets to drive like a maniac. Too bad it feels false.

The men in this movie spend a lot of time out-driving, out-punching, out-piloting, and just generally out-renegading each other. The title is misleading, though. There is a clear contrast between Ford’s massive automotive plant and the Ferrari factory, which is more like an artist’s atelier, but this is not really about Ford v Ferrari. This is a purely American conflict between the mavericks and The Man.

On the one side, we have the bean-counters and the bureaucrats, the marketing guys who care more about image than substance. On the other side, we have the visionaries and dreamers and doers. The Butterworths are making the argument that made-in-the-U.S.A. ingenuity and daring are getting mired in rules and regulations, but their scripting is too often heavy and lead-footed.

"You can’t win a race by committee," says Shelby at one point.

You shouldn’t make movies by committee, either. Considering this one is so hepped up on eccentric individualism, it’s unfortunate that the film too often reduces two fascinating real-life men to cliched characters straight out of the standard sports biopic.

Watching Ken Miles race is pure pleasure, but in the end, the film’s clumsily drawn conflict feels more assembly-line than artisanal.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor
Writer

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

Read full biography

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