Matt Damon and Christian Bale Make 'Ford v Ferrari' a White-Hot Car-Racing Movie

ford v ferrari
Courtesy of TIFF
Courtesy of TIFF
This story was originally published during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

Sitting in the theater during TIFF's first screening of Ford v Ferrari, stressfully jigging one of my knees up and down as Christian Bale tore around a tiny race track in an even tinier car, I took up nearly an entire page in my notes scrawling "NO HUMAN SHOULD HAVE TO DO THIS." The 24 Hours of Le Mans is the oldest endurance car race in the world -- meaning, it's the longest-running race in which drivers steer the fastest cars on the planet around a three-and-a-half-minute track for 24 hours straight (with a couple power nap breaks, but still). James Mangold's film, rehashing the Ford company's 1966 Le Mans win -- the first ever for an American company -- didn't necessarily make me want to switch careers, but it is the kind of movie I'll be more than happy to rewatch as many times as I can. 

In the late '60s, the Ford Motor Company attempts to buy out Italian sports car manufacturer Ferrari, but the deal is ultimately cut off after Enzo Ferrari discovered that the buyout would include Ferrari's racing program Scuderia Ferrari, whose cars had won the 24 Hours of Le Mans pretty consistently for the past decade. Insulted by the rebuff, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) decided to use his own company to build a car that would beat Ferrari at the next Le Mans in 1966, and hired former racer and car manufacturer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) to do the job. Shelby brings in driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale, free to use his real voice for once) to test out Ford's concept cars, and, with a little convincing, Miles is hired to drive one of the new cars at the actual race.

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20th Century Fox

Ford v Ferrari moves comfortably within the usual biopic formula, diligently introducing its main players and giving them each a little time to actually become characters and form relationships with one another, before getting into the really good stuff. It's pretty much a given that both Bale and Damon are great in their roles: Damon as constantly put-upon Shelby butts heads with one of Ford's control freak corporate suits, and Bale's Miles is delightfully manic, spouting profanity at nearly everyone, lobbing a wrench at Shelby's head, and yelling at every car he drives as if it's a racehorse. Letts is particularly wonderful, playing Ford II with hilarious white-knuckle frustration, and at one point bursting into loud tears after Shelby takes him for a lightning-fast spin in his new car. 

It's a little unfortunate that Caitriona Balfe, who nearly singlehandedly made Starz's Outlander into the phenomenon it is, gets the short end of the stick-shift, shunted into the pacing concerned-wife role that people regularly poke fun at on Twitter. She and Bale share one high-octane screaming match in a speeding car, but she's conspicuously wasted otherwise. 

As fun as all the back-and-forth gets, it all becomes filler when Mangold steers the movie towards the real reason we're all here. Racing movies live or die by the races they depict, and Ford v Ferrari's lengthy sequences, of which there are three in the movie itself, are white-hot, loud as hell, and utterly exhilarating. The sound is immense, the kind of rumbling, screeching noise you can almost reach out and hold in your hands. Every time a car started my theater seat vibrated; you can nearly feel the screeching wheels and the lurch whenever Miles shifts gears, pushing his car nearly to its breaking point. The interior shots are nothing but claustrophobic, not unlike the coffin-like spaces in last year's moon landing drama First Man. Marco Beltrami's pounding score lends a slick edge and makes everything all the more intense. 

Ford v Ferrari isn't world-shaking, but it is the kind of pure, fun entertainment that promises nothing but a good time and a little sweat on a weekend at the movies. It feels like a classic, anchored by the stunning race sequences and Miles' moving soliloquies to his son (a fantastic Noah Jupe) about the "perfect lap." It's the kind of movie your dad will call you up on the phone about a couple months from now, waxing poetic about man's achievements and the audacious risk-taking of a few good old Americans who felt a calling to try something crazy. Mangold's movie doesn't reinvent the wheel, but it sure leaves a pair of steaming tread marks in its wake. 

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Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.