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Front Page - Friday, November 22, 2019

Critic's Corner: ‘Ford v. Ferrari’ is so much more than a racing movie

You don’t have to be a racing fan or love cars to enjoy “Ford v. Ferrari.” You just have to like good movies. And “Ford v. Ferrari” is one hell of a good movie.

It might even be a great one. The story is fun, the performances are perfect and the dialogue crackles with energy. Also, the racing is breathtaking.

“Ford v. Ferrari” tells the story of a group of American engineers and designers who take on the seemingly impossible task of building a Ford that can defeat a Ferrari in the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in France.

The film takes place in the 1960s, a time when Ferrari has won seven of the eight Le Mans championships. One of the things I like about “Ford v. Ferrari” is how the filmmakers, which include director James Mangold (“Logan”), don’t cut any corners when it comes to telling the whole story.

This means we’re treated to a cluster of amusing scenes to frame Ford’s determination to dethrone Ferrari.

It begins with a wonderfully conceived sequence in which an infuriated Henry Ford II, the grandson of the company’s founder and president and CEO of Ford, shuts down a production line and tells everyone to go home and return the following day with an idea for keeping the company, which builds dull family cars, in business.

Lee Iacocca, who later helped save Chrysler from bankruptcy and starred in the company’s TV commercials in the 1970s and 80s, pitches the idea of appealing to younger buyers with faster, sexier cars. The key, as he sees it, is to buy financially troubled Ferrari.

Enzo Ferrari is seemingly ready to sign the paperwork but backs out at the last minute, selling to Fiat instead. He sends Iacocca back to the U.S with a slew of insults for Ford and his company.

Ford’s revenge will be to defeat Ferrari at Le Mans.

That task ends up falling on automotive designer Carroll Shelby and British driver and designer Ken Miles, played respectively by Matt Damon and Christian Bale. Shelby won Le Mans in 1959 but was forced to retire from racing due to a heart condition, while Miles is a brilliant but hot-tempered racer and mechanic.

When I first saw the trailer for “Ford v. Ferrari,” I thought the film would be a David versus Goliath tale, with Ford assuming the role of the young shepherd and Ferrari serving as the unbeatable giant. I’m glad I was wrong, as that would have steered the story too far from the truth to be worth telling.

Instead, “Ford v. Ferrari” features a clash between two titans of industry, with Ford as the underdog in name only, as the company has considerably more resources than the fiscally beleaguered Ferrari.

The largest measure of drama in “Ford v. Ferrari” comes from Shelby’s struggle to put Miles behind a wheel at Le Mans. According to the movie, Miles wasn’t exactly a company man; rather, his passion for cars compelled him to tell the truth, whether he was trashing a new Ford Mustang at its world premiere or critiquing Ford’s prototypes for its Le Mans car.

This clash of giant personalities fuels several marvelous scenes, including one in which Shelby takes Ford on a heart-pounding test drive in a Hail Mary bid to get Miles in a driver’s seat at Le Mans. This probably didn’t happen (Shelby’s grandson told the Los Angeles Times he doubts it did), but it makes for a terrifically entertaining moment.

Every car needs a strong chassis to support its many parts. In “Ford v. Ferrari,” the human elements carry the rest of the film. For example, Miles isn’t portrayed as a one-dimensional firebrand but a loving father and husband who’s ferociously committed to his craft. He and Shelby have a friendship that’s quite touching.

That relationship grows out of the integrity Shelby displays in several difficult situations and the way Miles comes to trust him. For all its racing bravado and ear-splitting Dolby sound, the most impressive thing about “Ford v. Ferrari” might be the way people collide and change each other.

I mentioned that Bale plays Miles. His performance is one of the film’s greatest pleasures.

As Bale has proven in many films, he carries deep reservoir of talent. In “Ford v. Ferrari,” he opens the floodgates to depict a complex character who’s both exceedingly difficult and warmly human.

As Bale brilliantly brings both ends of the spectrum to life, he reminds us that details matter. I especially like how he raises his chin in defiance every time he is confronted.

“Ford v. Ferrari” isn’t perfect. A few lines in the otherwise well-written script made me cringe, and the film occasionally panders to the audience, as it does when Shelby locks a disagreeable Ford executive in his office to secure some one-on-one time with Ford.

Also, a scene in which Miles’ wife drives recklessly through traffic to convince him to tell her the truth about his involvement with Ford’s Le Mans effort is just silly.

Thankfully, the film survives these moments.

You can read about what happened before you see “Ford v. Ferrari,” but I suggest you don’t. Then, as you watch two drivers push their vehicles to extremes, you’ll experience the exhilaration of not just a race to the finish line but also a beautifully crafted moment of big screen cinema.