Christian Bale and Matt Damon in Ford v Ferrari (Photo: Fox)

FORD V FERRARI
★★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY James Mangold
STARS Matt Damon, Christian Bale

It doesn’t quite match the rush provided by Rush, but Ford v Ferrari nevertheless qualifies as a good time for those who like to witness life in the fast lane.

If Ron Howard’s 2013 drama was primarily a movie about men who raced cars (in this case, Formula 1 aces Niki Lauda and James Hunt), James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari ultimately is as much about the cars as the characters. In fact, the Ford GT40 emerges as such a prominent player — and receives so many loving close-ups — that it wouldn’t be surprising if 20th Century Fox mounted a Best Supporting Actor Oscar campaign on its behalf.

As the title clearly indicates, Ford v Ferrari looks at the rivalry between the two auto giants, one that reared its head during the 1960s. While the cars produced by Italy’s Enzo Ferrari (Remo Gerone) were viewed as sleek and sexy beasts that routinely won the prestigious Le Mans race in France, the assembly-line vehicles manufactured by Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) were seen as square, old-fashioned, and likely to come in third in a race against the tortoise and the hare. Ford Vice President Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) convinces his boss to purchase Ferrari to boost the company’s image, but when the Italian outfit reneges on the deal and bolts to Fiat, an outraged Ford decides that he’ll beat Enzo Ferrari at his own game.

Determined to win Le Mans — something no American car company had ever done — the Ford organization seeks the input of automobile designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a former driver who had to retire due to health issues. As the only American to win Le Mans (while driving for Britain’s Aston Martin), Shelby’s knowledge is considered invaluable, and he enlists Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a British driver/mechanic undergoing hard times, to not only help him construct a new car but also to race it. But Miles’ quick temper and unwillingness to play by the rules draws the ire of Ford flunky Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), who does everything to get the volatile Brit kicked off the team.

The true-life story behind Ford v Ferrari is such a natural for the screen that it’s not surprising Hollywood had been eyeing it for at least a decade. Many of the dramatic developments (such as the conclusion of the Le Mans race) really did occur, and the performances by Damon, Bale, Letts and an imaginatively cast Bernthal lend weight to the figures they portray (incidentally, Iacocca, later a CEO extraordinaire, passed away just this past July, at the age of 94). There’s also an ample amount of humor in the picture, much of it courtesy of the two above-the-title A-listers (NASCAR fans are sure to bristle when it’s opined that driving that circuit requires no skill since it’s just “four hours of turning left”).

That’s not to say the movie doesn’t occasionally take the easy path of broad strokes — Beebe is a villain of cartoonish dimensions, and the Ferrari driver who emerges as Miles’ main competitor on the tracks glowers with the single-minded intensity of a Bond henchman. Yet even when it lapses into formula, Ford v Ferrari is so energetically staged that it’s easy to admit that the formula won.

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