From when it was initially announced with Michael Mann at the helm, the idea of a movie which traced Ford’s intention to beat Ferrari at Le Mans seems like a film that might have trouble relating. But the universality of underdog stories plus such enhanced technology both to capture and digital integrate elements of the racing are better than they have ever been. This is why when director James Mangold finally got to make the movie he understood that the core was the push and pull between Carol Shelby and Ken Miles and how much they kinetically needed one another. While it takes a couple scenes to get what the dynamic is going to be, it is truly Christian Bale’s brilliance that comes together. Unlike certain more sleazy or perhaps characters on a moral precipice, here he plays a character which is utterly charming with a chip on his shoulder and yet wants to be both a provider against his bigger ego. It is a hard part to play but the reason it works is that around the second third of the movie you get to just watch him as things seem to de-materialize. The backgrounds especially of what is supposed to be LAX are stark even if they weren’t possibly shot there. One scene shot at dusk is beautiful, simple and almost shot with natural light yet Bale’s acting seems relaxed. Very difficult to pull off and yet it seems very smooth.
Matt Damon has to do more of the heavily lifting and despite his utter competency as an actor he can never quite disappear. His balance of the politics and creativity within Shelby is the fuel that keeps the plot moving. It is the less showy part but nonetheless crucial. Not since, to a lesser point actually, “Days Of Thunder” has there been both the nature of life in design and on the track that feels so organic. But neither Bale or Damon try to overwhelm a scene like Cruise would. Even the story beats which obviously reflect real life have a relativity to them so you can see one action reflect another. While characters like Enzo Ferrari and Henry Ford II have their parts to play, others have definite possibility while others grind a little bit. The actor who plays Lea Iaccoca has the efficiency of knowing the balance and plays the part with elegance while Josh Lucas in his first big film in years adequately hits his notes but could have instilled more bravado. There seems no heart to his decisions. Even someone trying to save their own job is not so one-dimensional. But this is a small discrepancy in what it is an extremely effective film.
The racing scenes, and even more specifically, the training scenes where Bale’s Ken is helping Damon’s Shelby make the car better just makes the film sing. But that pacing is essential especially when it gets to Le Mans. This is something you can’t do in say “Speed Racer”. Bale’s character, at one point when he is racing at Le Mans, has an moment of enlightenment but it is wrapped in a sense of both ego and humility at the same time. That is stakes and heart on the line. Ultimately that is where cinema connects. And “Ford Vs. Ferrari” has it.
By Tim Wassberg