'Ford v Ferrari' review: Matt Damon wants Christian Bale behind the wheel. Ford has a worse idea.

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

If you look up "Ford v Ferrari" on the uber-valuable film site imdb.com, you'll see how the wraparound video ad for "Ford v Ferrari" packages what it's selling in a few quick seconds. Smiling movie stars. Beautiful woman kissing one of the movie stars. Cars, vrooming. Young boy, giving a thumbs-up.

The idea is that "Ford v Ferrari" presents itself as a family-friendlyish PG-13-rated story of people, not machinery. Well, people and machinery. The hope shared by 20th Century Fox; its corporate overlord, Disney; director James Mangold ("Walk the Line," "Logan"); and others connected to this unfashionable $100 million picture rests on the movie finding a larger audience than a full range of recent racing-themed commercial disappointments, from "Speed Racer" to "Rush."

Box office expectations and results aside, "Ford v Ferrari" works as a stylish, enjoyable mash note to its era, and the need for speed and all that. Matt Damon plays Texas race car designer Carroll Shelby, hired by the Ford Motor Company to dream up and execute a competitive vehicle. Mission, should car and driver choose to accept it: to win the grueling marathon known as 24 Hours of Le Mans.

In the time span laid out by screenwriters Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller, the previous six Le Mans endurance feats, 1960-1966, have been won by Ferrari. Ford, a company whose recently launched Mustang made them thirst for more and faster, issues a directive to Shelby: win.

Christian Bale co-stars with Damon, portraying the English racer, engineer and mechanic Ken Miles. Emotionally the story belongs to Miles, not Shelby, and Bale brings an outsize energy to the proceedings. Irish actress Caitriona Balfe plays Mollie, Miles' wife and rock and not-fully characterized conscience. She's the one in the ads for a half-second; the thumbs-up kid, Miles' son, Peter, is played by the good, unmannered young actor Noah Jupe.

"Ford v Ferrari" could've easily been called "Ford v Ford." Much of this leisurely two-and-a-half-hour film chronicles Shelby locking horns with the money men over control of the project. (The studio filmmaking parallels are clear: Ford is Disney; Shelby is Mangold; Miles is the unfashionable and risky $100 million movie titled "Ford v Ferrari.") Miles never made sense within Ford's corporate image; the movie reminds us that sometimes you win and lose, simultaneously.

Tracy Letts essentially steals the movie as Henry Ford II, who has a spectacularly funny and then unexpectedly moving meltdown during and after a GT40 test drive at extremely high speed. (It's the stuff of Oscar nominations.) Ford's enterprising right-hand man Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) tips around the edges of the action, while Josh Lucas snivels away as Leo Beebe, Ford's "special vehicles" director and the movie's clearly labeled antagonist.

Parts of "Ford v Ferrari" are about as nuanced as "Cars 2," and every time director Mangold cuts to a close-up of Francesco Bauco as the surly Ferrari driver, it's comically exaggerated. For contrast, and for good old-fashioned American values of stoic underplaying, the ensemble boasts Ray McKinnon as the "fabricator" and fix-it genius on Shelby's team. He's my kind of character actor. Though I recommend "Ford v Ferrari," in an alternate movie universe somewhere, I hope someone's making a movie titled "McKinnon v Letts."



3 stars

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some language and peril)

Running time: 2:32

Opens: Thursday evening

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