By on December 3, 2019

The motion picture industry has been making movies about cars and car racing since the silent film era. After all, they’re called “motion” pictures, and race cars certainly do move. Racing has other elements, as well, that provide for dramatic and entertaining stories, not the least of which is life-or-death danger.

In many cases, though, racing movies have disappointed either car enthusiasts for their lack of realism, or their financial backers for their less-than-blockbuster ticket sales. Now and then, however, a gifted director gets the budget, the actors, the story, and the technical wherewithal to make a film that resonates with both knowledgeable enthusiasts and the general public.

James Mangold appears to have accomplished that with Ford v Ferrari (Le Mans ’66 in foreign markets) starring Matt Damon as Carroll Shelby (who needs no introduction on this site) and Christian Bale as Ken Miles, the star-crossed but exceptionally talented driver and mechanic whose personal story provides the film’s main dramatic arc.

It’s an entertaining and visually beautiful film that has already grossed over $100 million dollars in less than two weeks and looks to end up as the most financially successful racing movie ever. I watched it at a theater in Birmingham, Michigan — an affluent Detroit suburb — at the early evening showing on the second Saturday of the film’s release, which was sold out.

While Ford v Ferrari makes for a fine movie, it’s a terrible documentary. It’s absolutely true that Shelby, Miles and the rest of the Shelby American team whipped the GT40 into fighting trim, battling the bureaucracy at Henry Ford II’s family firm before they could take on Enzo Ferrari at Le Mans. In that sense, Ford v Ferrari is a buddy flick and way, way more. Yes, it’s “based” on a true story, but from how the history is recorded, about half of the movie didn’t happen in real life.

I won’t bother recounting the factual inaccuracies, stretchings of truth, and outright fiction in the film. You can find plenty of articles on that topic already. Just about any movie, though, requires some suspension of disbelief, and the acting and filmmaking is on a level that allows you to enjoy the movie even as you are telling yourself, “But that’s not how it really happened.”

As a dramatic movie, Ford v Ferrari  probably works better than any racing movie I can think of, but from a technical standpoint I don’t think the racing scenes quite live up to the standards set by Ron Howard in Rush and John Frankenheimer in Grand Prix (who pretty much wrote the book on how to shoot cars racing on a track).

The cars are gorgeous, however. The GT40 and Ferrari P3/4 are two of the most attractive automobiles ever made and the cinematography puts them in the kind of light that can only be realized with real cars on a real track, not CGI. However, if the GT40 was really doing 218 down the Mulsanne straight, it looked like it wasn’t going nearly that fast past the trees in the background in the film. Also, as Casey Putsch pointed out in his review, there was entirely too much of drivers taking their eyes off the road ahead and turning their heads to look at and grimace at competitors. That, however, is a racing movie cliche that goes back at least as far as the late silent era film The Speedway from 1929.

Still, I think car enthusiasts will like it, if they can suspend their disbelief at the liberties taken with the truth, and that should be easy. It’s beautifully shot, the characters are engaging and it’s far from a typical sports movie that ends with the underdog’s victory. Using Ken Miles as the main protagonist gives the story a dramatic arc with an actual denouement: Miles’ death. That’s not a spoiler, it’s history. Miles was killed two months after the 1966 Le Mans race, while testing the Ford “J Car”, the intermediate development between the GT40 that won in ’66 and the GT40 MKIV that Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt drove to victory at Le Mans the following year.

There are a lot of strong performances in the film besides Damon and Bale. Tracy Letts is being mentioned for a Best Supporting Oscar for his portrayal of Henry Ford II, but I think Ray McKinnon steals the show as Phil Remington. The movie deserves considerable props for showing Remington as the technical and fabricating genius behind Shelby American, even if the movie’s publicity materials erroneously perpetuate the myth that Carroll Shelby was a “car designer.”

Ultimately, I think that’s the film’s most enduring value to car guys — it gives proper credit to people like Remington and Miles, the Armando Galarraga of motorsports. Every baseball fan knows that the former Detroit Tigers pitcher got screwed out of a perfect game by an umpire’s admitted blown call on what should have been the final out. Anyone who knows the story about Ford’s GT40 effort knows that Miles was the de facto winner of the 1966 Le Mans race, even if Bruce McLaren was awarded the trophy because of the 1-2-3 photo finish arranged at the behest of Ford executives and a technicality in the Le Mans rules.

It’s not a perfect movie; Josh Lucas plays Leo Beebe, a senior Ford executive who takes the role of Shelby and Miles’ antagonist in the film. Lucas’ Beebe is a smarmy, almost cartoon caricature of a corporate snake, portrayed as more villainous than Enzo himself. That’s not necessarily Lucas’ fault — that’s just how the character is written and perhaps the role was influenced by Ford Motor Company’s reputation back then as being a political nightmare of ambitious executives jealous of others’ fiefdoms while they zealously protected their own. How much Beebe really stood in the way of Shelby and Miles is open to debate. The filmmakers could have just as easily focused on the genuine personal grudge between Shelby and Ferrari. As an up and coming racer (who would eventually win Le Mans for Aston Martin) Shelby turned down multiple offers of a factory ride from Il Commendatore. Shelby didn’t like how his friends who drove for Enzo ended up dead for their efforts and for his part, Ferrari was insulted that Shelby wouldn’t risk his life for the honor of driving with Ferrari.

One criticism of the film that I don’t think is fair has come from the “woke” crowd, complaining that the movie’s characters are almost entirely male, presumably of the straight white variety, capitalist planet despoilers and fossil fuel burners who should be as extinct as the decayed dinosaurs they are burning. The character of Mollie Miles, Ken Miles’ wife, played by Caitriona Balfe, has been criticized for being a more or less a traditional housewife, there to provide emotional support for her husband — ignoring that the story takes place no later than 1966, a time when most married women were indeed traditional housewives.

Like Forester wrote, the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. I don’t watch movies with a checklist to keep track of how many characters have what kind of genitals, nor a stopwatch to see if screen time has been allocated equitably and intersectionality, so I can’t say this for sure, but it seems to me that Balfe was on the screen more than either Letts or Remo Girone’s Enzo Ferrari, the two title characters.

If you’re not dangerously allergic to gasoline or testosterone, you should like Ford v Ferrari. Worthy of the ticket price and a spot reserved on your DVD shelf next to your copies of Rush, Grand Prix, Paul Newman’s Winning, and Steve McQueen’s Le Mans.


[Images: 20th Century Fox]

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28 Comments on “Movie Review: Ford v Ferrari...”

  • avatar

    I’ve been looking forward to this movie for quite some time myself.

    Aside: if you’re in the Denver area, you definitely need to visit the Shelby museum, which is just outside of Boulder. The cars on display – including several GT40s – are absolutely drool-worthy.

  • avatar
    Rick T.

    Thoroughly enjoyed by me (lukewarm racing enthusiast) and my wife (not at all racing enthusiast). At several parts of the race she forgot herself and was squeezing my arm and whispering: “Go! Go! Go! Pass him! Pass him!”

    Bale should win an Oscar. Saw it in IMAX which is highly recommended for this movie.

  • avatar

    My sister and I saw it, we both liked it greatly. My wife and daughters declined the invitation.

    I’m not sure what was was going on with the Ken character taking his sunglasses on and off in the car, it’s not like there’s somewhere you could put them, and as usual, too much bumping into each other, but nothing nearly as silly as Days of Thunder.

    In 1966, the Ford MkII qualified on the pole of the 24 hour race at Daytona at a time of 1:57.8. In 1984 a chicane was added to the backstraight that adds about 3 seconds to the lap time. Last year at the same race, the Mazda DPi claimed the pole at 1:33.6, some 28 seconds faster allowing for the added chicane. In the Pilot Cup race at the same track, a Cayman GT4 Club Sport qualified at 1:53.7, putting it at 8 seconds faster allowing for the chicane.

    I do believe there are a number of current production cars that could best the MkII at Daytona.

    • 0 avatar

      On the other hand, if you put the MKII on new R-compound tires of approximately the same external dimensions as its original tires, it would probably be able to set at least one impressive lap time before overstressing its suspension.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    I saw the movie alone, having left my wife at home. I wasn’t much bothered by the race car movie cliches (side glances between the drivers on the course, etc.) and, being blissfully ignorant of the “true facts,” enjoyed the movie immensely. Making Ken Miles’ story the narrative axis of the movie was a brilliant idea. Miles, as portrayed, was an interesting and complex character. Unlike some “woke” critics, I thought the character of Miles’ wife was very well-developed. It seemed to me that she was a potential hot shoe of her own –what with her exploits in the station wagon on Mullholland Drive — that, in another time, might have been out there on the track, too. One could say that her subplot was a meditation women’s potential as gearheads but done in a subtle, rather than heavy-handed way. Contrast this film with the French “Un Homme et une Femme” (“A Man and a Woman”) of about the same vintage as the events depicted in Ford vs. Ferrari. There, the woman character (played by the perfectly gorgeous Anouk Aimee) is little more than an attractive ornament on the arm of her Le Mans driver boyfriend’s arm.

  • avatar

    Enjoyed this film a lot as did my lovely wife who is not a car person. It’s really a relationship movie about Shelby and Miles with the cars as their common bond. I would recommend it to anyone.

  • avatar
    Master Baiter

    My wife, son and I enjoyed the movie.

    I was surprised the point about Ferrari’s habit of letting his drivers get killed was not raised in the film.

    I would recommend the Adam Carolla-produced documentary, The 24 Hour War, for a more factual treatment of the subject.

  • avatar
    Michael S6

    Very good movie. Now I know why the Shelby name means so much.

  • avatar

    I saw it this weekend with my son. I knew in advance about the subject matter that the movie was based on. Not really sure what I was expecting but, while I enjoyed it, it was very slow at times. The friendship between Shelby and Miles was basically what the movie was about and the cars/race was really just the backdrop. There were some very enjoyable moments though. Pretty sure they left out some important historical narrative, like the fact that Ford didn’t beat Ferrari in just its second attempt. Some of the jabs at Ford’s corporate culture were pretty good. Id have to go back and look, but I don’t think the Blue Oval emblem was present in the film. This is definitely not a Ford fluff piece, quite the opposite.

  • avatar

    The wife and I saw it… very enjoyable. I wish there was more about the GT40 itself from an engineering stand point. Instead it just kind of shows up and then they wrench on it a little. I wanted some behind the scenes drama around its early developement which must have been pretty intense. From an acting standpoint the only thing that threw me was Damon didn’t really have that Texas accent to play Shelby.

    Sadly the driving in the movie is major BS. Why does every racing movie have to show people shifting and mashing the gas. Do people really think race car drivers are going around at 1/2 throttle until they see another car which can only be passed by putting the pedal to the metal? The car is flat out down the entire straight and likely gets into top gear pretty quickly. After that its a drafting game. At least they showed how real passing occurs – under braking – a few times.

    • 0 avatar

      Also the cars, once the gas is mashed, suddenly become capable of passing the other cars, which are in the same class and very competitive with one another, almost at will.

      Also, the idea that you’re going to have a driver yelling at another driver while they’re racing, both cars running straight-piped 7-liter V8s and 8800-rpm 4.5-liter V12s…yeah, that’s really going to happen.

      And the idea that using 7k rpm race redline on a GT40 MkII as opposed to a 6k rpm redline is going to mean faster speeds down a 3-mile-long straight…um, no – once they’re maybe a half-mile into that straight, even with the super-long Le Mans gearing, they’re in top gear…and those cars could not pull a 7k redline or even probably a 6k rpm redline in top gear…terminal speeds on that straight are not going to be any different, regardless of what your shift points are. Peak hp in those cars was 6200 rpm, with redline at 7400…so 7k was well past the power peak.

      Finally, the idea that there were any speed duels on the Mulsanne Straight between GT40 MkIIs and Ferrari P3s…the Fords had probably a 10-mph advantage there – ~195 to ~205 mph.

  • avatar

    I saw Ford v Ferrari twice. Once with a fellow race fan and once with some of the car nuts in my family. I was a bit put off by the factual mistakes in the story line the first time I saw it…but still gave it an 8 out of 10.

    The second time I saw it was exactly a week later. I got over the details and fell in love with it for the story. These people loved what they did and trusted/loved each other. The team battled incredible odds and won. Give others the same resources and I doubt equal results would have been achieved. The relationships portrayed between Miles family members were very touching.

    I thought that Damon and Bale delivered outstanding performances. Damon captured Shelby’s humor and personality pretty well. If anything, Shelby was portrayed as a bit too serious when not in competition and needing his game face on.

    I tell people that this movie will be a classic.

  • avatar

    Nicely done trailer.

    Still, I don’t get why so many people consider a car-themed movie or TV show “good” based on how closely it resembles a fly-on-the-wall documentary or how-to instructional video.

    See, the great thing about The Movies is the ability to show things on the screen that either can’t be done in real life, or would be so insanely dangerous that they’d be too expensive to film.

  • avatar

    “I don’t watch movies with a checklist to keep track of how many characters have what kind of genitals, nor a stopwatch to see if screen time has been allocated equitably and intersectionality….”

    Thank you, well said! I was alive and aware in 1966 and it was what it was. And yes I saw the movie the same weekend that you did and enjoyed it immensely in spite of some historical inaccuracies.

  • avatar

    “One criticism of the film that I don’t think is fair has come from the “woke” crowd…”

    Who though? Actual film critics of note? If you’re including the criticism of randoms just to complain about it, it feels a little Old Man Yells at Cloud.

    • 0 avatar

      Its the usual blather from the “woke” crowd where they try and tear down the patriarchy by pointing out a laundry list of foibles when it comes to anything remotely masculine.Unfortunately it’s just the same trite talking points so it just gets dismissed in short order.

    • 0 avatar

      There really are people who want nothing more than to reimagine history with characters chosen to reinforce the idea that diversity is our greatest strength at any cost.

      • 0 avatar

        I will conceed, that is from a mainstream publication (the reviews I’d read tended to agree it was an excellent movie). I still think Ronnie’s meta-criticism is a bit of virtue signalling though.

  • avatar

    Put me down as another who enjoyed this film immensely! There were some technical issues ( although some I enjoyed like catching the Superformance Cobras with modern wheels and rubber on them in the background ) that could have been better but overall a very good movie.

    At this point in life I’ve just come to accept most movies are only partially based on real life events with pacing, action and drama more important than historical accuracy so when I go to see a movie like Ford v. Ferrari its with that understanding and I don’t let the little details ruin it for me.

  • avatar

    I can’t wait to go see this flick .

    I watch movies to be entertained, not informed unless I’m watching a documentary .

    I remember going to see “Red Line 7,000” in 1966, at the time I thought it cool and realistic having never been to a race track then .

    My son flat believes there were never racing engines that red lined at 7,000 RPM, more silly old man stories .

    woke is B.S. and they know it .

    What’s wrong with yelling at clouds ? . they sometimes affect my tin foil hat .


  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    There was an interview with the movie’s director in the NYT, in which he explained that he indeed used some limited CGI….For the race spectators.

    He mentioned that for the scene where the race is about to begin and the Miles character takes a wide look at the spectators on the start line grandstands, those were real people. Hundreds of extras.

    However, he could not afford to pay hundreds of extras for every shot, so he used CGI instead.

    This is trivia only, I am not detracting one single bit from the movie’s realism.
    As a fact, I applaud this pragmatic approach, as it allowed the movie budget to be distributed where it counts, the race sequences.

  • avatar

    We can all be thankful they didn’t recast this with all females as seems to be the trend nowadays. I’m looking forward to seeing it.

  • avatar

    I loved this movie and thought Bale’s performance was one for the ages. The guy completely transforms himself physically and mentally for a role.

    I do wonder if the scene where Shelby takes Ford II for a very scary track ride ever happened. Anybody know?

    My one peeve about the movie is the same one I have for all racing/car/action movies: drivers talking smack at each other while racing at high speed. I don’t know what’s worse, car drivers yelling at each other over their roaring 427’s at 200mph, or motorcycle pilots insulting each other at 200mph like they’re standing in a quiet room with no helmets on. It would be hilarious if someone made a satire flick about this, showing drivers trying to communicate petty insults over wind and engine and tire noise, finally having to used hand signals and head shakes to get their point accross before they run off the track.

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