Ford V. Ferrari Pares A World War Down To Two Characters—And That's Just The Way It Needs To Be

Photo: 20th Century Fox (IMDB)

I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about Ford V. Ferrari. I will always, always be stoked for big-budget movie about race cars, but having spent the past year or so researching everything about mid-’60s Le Mans (including the legendary 1966 event) for my own fictional novel about the race, I had my doubts that my thirst for accuracy would be appeased enough to let me sit down and just enjoy the thing. But I walked out of the theater last night knowing that this was the best racing movie I’d ever seen—in terms of storyline, accuracy, and production quality. And the producers did that by just sticking to the story of Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles.

(This review contains quite a few spoilers for the movie. If you know the story, you know the story. People have been telling and re-telling the story of Ford beating Ferrari at Le Mans for over 50 years, yes, but you probably shouldn’t read on if you don’t want to be surprised at some of the directorial choices.)

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The narrative of the film itself is, admittedly, a little confused. It’s more like a collage than a linear narrative: you get enough snippets and sense impressions to Get It, but if you know the story at hand, it isn’t massively cohesive. This is one of those instances where audience members unfamiliar with the historical context will understand what’s going on clearly—but if you have a more intimate knowledge, the storyline can feel lacking.

Gif: The New York Times (YouTube)

The film starts off with Matt Damon as Carroll Shelby as part of his 1959 Le Mans entry—exhausted, he’s racing through the depths of a foggy night, headlights dancing over cracked pavement. It’s an absolutely gorgeous shot, one that made the hair on my arms prickle. Okay, I thought, right then and there. This might be pretty damn good.

Image: 20th Century Fox
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And it is. Both Damon and Christian Bale come across as if they’re both having a ball in their roles as very talented, snarky shitheads completely mad about racing, and it makes it fun as hell to watch. There’s a lot of liberty taken with some of the humor here (at one point Miles criticizes Leo Beebe at the Mustang launch by saying, “I’d rather buy a Chevelle, and that’s a fucking awful car.”), but it’s good. Sure, I doubt Shelby and Miles discussed the Le Mans program at a diner. I doubt they had a wrestling match on the sidewalk. But it’s all plausible given the characters we’re working with. It’s the kind of thing that’ll leave you smiling.

The acting is fantastic. While we might not know a ton about Ken Miles, Bale comes across as the perfect fit—he’s snarky, funny, a little bitchy, but most of all passionate. When Bale is arguing with SCCA officials about the minutiae of the rulebook, he disappears as a Christian Bale the person and slips fully into the role. There was a very natural, believable melt between Miles as a softer family man at home with his wife and son into Miles as the hard-headed racer who won’t let Shelby think he’ll ever have control over the management at Ford.

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Which brings us to Matt Damon. I’ll be totally honest in saying I’m not a Damon fan. But here, I actually was so invested in the character he was playing that I forgot who was playing it. Damon’s Shelby is a pain in the ass who isn’t afraid to tell it like it is when he knows he’s right, which is exactly who the real Carroll Shelby was. As he grapples with his commitments to Ford and his promises to Miles, Damon’s Shelby has honestly one of the more interesting character arcs in the whole story.

The dynamic between Bale and Damon is great. The banter between them is believable, and you really feel like these are two guys who trust each other and care for each other but won’t ever say that in exact terms. They can kick each other’s asses and then have a Coke afterward, and it makes sense. Both actors individually do a great job of making viewers care about the characters, but it’s the two of them together that make the story so compelling.

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The production is gorgeous, too. The GT40 testing scenes really shine here, even more so than the racing (which I’ll get to a little later). The quality is crisp, even as it retains some of that soft sepia-ness you’d expect from the era. I was glad I had an arm rest on my seat to clutch because there were a lot of moments where the camera choices just took my breath away. When Miles decides at the closing laps of Le Mans ‘66 that he’ll slow down and be a team player, letting Ford have his finish line photo, the GT40 is shown head-on slowing down, growing smaller and smaller in the frame. It’s one of those moments where, if you know what’s about to happen, there’s a good chance you might start tearing up just because of the way it’s filmed.

Arguably, the title Ford V. Ferrari is a little misleading because it isn’t really about Ford battling Ferrari so much as it is more Miles and Shelby V. The World. If you’re going into the film looking for the engineering intricacies that actually made the 1966 Le Mans 1-2-3 happen, the off-track battle that honestly kind of nullified the excitement of the on-track battle, you’re going to be disappointed. If you’re looking for an in-depth exploration of Ferrari’s end of things, forget it. If you’re hoping for the full scope of the entirety of Ford’s massive operation, you won’t get it. (There was a reference to the Holman Moody Fords, which was really all I wanted out of this movie; if anyone wants to do a documentary about that operation, I’ll be the first to watch.) You’ll be better off reading A.J. Baime’s Go Like Hell or watching the documentary The 24 Hour War if you’re looking for a broader perspective.

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At the end of the day, this is more a movie about people than it is anything else. It’s about the underdogs at Shelby American versus the capitalist behemoth that is Ford in an attempt to work together just enough to kick Ferrari’s ass. But, y’know, nobody’s going to buy a ticket for a movie about a guy they’ve probably never even heard of.

By focusing on just Shelby and Miles, Ford V. Ferrari actually has a chance to tell a complete story rather than make a shoddy attempt at covering too much ground. Honestly, Shelby and Miles are the two most fascinating characters of the bunch, and they’re the ones you actually give a shit about. These are the racers, not just a bunch of ponderous guys in suits having meetings about stuff.

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Now, I’m not going to say the movie was totally perfect. I was initially pretty skeptical about the fact that the racing scenes were shot at different tracks—but Road Atlanta made a very convincing set for Le Mans. It was Auto Club Speedway that really dropped the ball here.

If you’re a race fan, you’re going to know that Auto Club is not the Daytona it is posing as. And, I mean, I wouldn’t be quite so bothered... if they hadn’t left the digital scoring pylon up. Daytona not only did not have a scoring pylon back in 1966, but it sure as hell would not have a digital LED pylon. This is one of those things that no one is going to care about if they’re not familiar with racing history—but it was really distracting if you did. Especially since it looked like they’d CGI’d a grandstand full of fans. They... probably could have grabbed that pylon. It wasn’t distractingly, egregiously awful to the point where it ruined the movie, but it was admittedly a little disappointing.

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There were some other minor things. Lorenzo Bandini and Ken Miles exchanging death glares mid-race was kind of absurd. The Italians were all kind of portrayed as incompetent and surly. The 220 mph speedometer on the GT40 actually made me laugh. Minor stuff, but still a little corny.

I also had some pretty mixed feelings about the ending. While I thought Miles’ fatal crash scene was elegantly handled—rather than some grotesque close-up, a faraway shot showed Miles losing control of brakeless car followed by a cloud of dust rising from the crash—I was not particularly a fan of the fact that Miles’ son was there watching it happen, or that Phil Remington basically dismissed Shelby’s emotions after the fact with something to the effect of, “sometimes they just don’t get out of the car.” It was a conversation Remington had had with Peter Miles, Ken’s son, earlier in the film—and it was something I was uncomfortable with when it was then used on Shelby, not reprised with Peter post-crash.

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Other reviews of the movie are calling the end of the movie hollow and disappointing. That’s not my qualm here because that’s... kind of the point. The Ken Miles story is fucking disappointing. You do feel hollow. Miles was robbed, and he never had a chance to reclaim his title. My problem is that it was just kind of poor writing. Peter Miles didn’t really need to be there, and the theme of Remington and Shelby comforting him in the face of death was jarringly lost there.

That’s where most of the frustration here comes in. There are some really spot-on historical details, which makes it all the more frustrating to have other details lost in the fray. Miles, for example, was really into fitness at a time when that was an uncommon thing to care about—and in a few scenes, he’s pictured in his workout gear after a run. But the film missed the opportunity to use the iconic “I’ve been fucked” quote after Miles gets out of his car after Le Mans. There were narrative threads that were hinted at and then dropped.

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My husband has been saying that these mishaps keep Ford V. Ferrari from being a great movie and instead just make it a good movie. I disagree, sort of. I still think it’s great. It’s about as good as you’re going to get from a Hollywood film. It has flaws, yes. But they aren’t really egregious enough to make you hate it.

At the end of the day, it’s a movie, not a documentary. You can’t expect full accuracy. But the producers did a damn good job with what they had and turned a great story into an equally great movie. In my eyes, it surpassed pretty much all other racing movies. Rush and Days of Thunder got nothin’ on Ford V. Ferrari. Hollywood just might have figured out the formula for a really great motorsport film.

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And as far as the actual car racing stuff goes, I’ll admit that it does fall a little short of things like Grand Prix or Le Mans, but I also think that largely has to do with the fact that Ford V. Ferrari is so far removed from the era in which it’s set. Le Mans had an absolutely terrible storyline, but the racing is so great it makes up for it. Ford V. Ferrari’s racing is mostly just okay, but as far as storyline and historical accuracy goes, it’s the best I’ve seen so far.

Seriously. Get out there and see it as soon as you can.

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About the author

Elizabeth Blackstock

Staff writer. Motorsport fanatic. Proud owner of a 2013 Mazda 2.