The title is a misnomer in more ways than one. “Ford v Ferrari” is a buddy movie more than it’s the story of a rivalry, and the “Ford” half of the equation isn’t necessarily one of the good guys.
That might momentarily fade into the background as you revel in this extremely enjoyable true-life drama featuring some of our most deft actors having the time of their lives. I probably just have to say “Matt Damon and Christian Bale, plus the woman from 'Outlander’ and the best scene-stealing performance you’ll ever see from a supporting playwright,” and you’re probably in. That the movie’s pretty great is icing on the cake.
Directed by the talented journeyman James Mangold (“Walk the Line,” “Logan”), “Ford v Ferrari” dramatizes the events of 1963 to 1966, when the Ford Motor Company hired an outsider, Carroll Shelby, to build a car that would win the 24 Hours of Le Mans auto race against the perpetually dominant Ferrari. Shelby had won Le Mans in 1959 — only the second American to do so — and had retired to a career designing race cars, but to the staid, corporate Ford, he was a maverick, and his lead driver, Ken Miles, was even further out there. Mangold’s movie, written by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller, is the story of how they didn’t all get along but still managed to — well, see the movie.
Damon plays Carroll Shelby as a laconic but savvy good old boy, and Bale is Ken Miles, a skinny, wild-eyed live wire from England. They’re first seen arguing angrily at a racetrack, and it’s a mark of their friendship that Miles throws a wrench through his own windshield instead of at Shelby’s head. (Shelby later has it framed.) Over in Dearborn, meanwhile, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) is demanding his executives innovate a way out of the company’s slump, and a slick young firebrand named Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) comes up with a novel idea: extend the company’s brand into the international racing circuit.
A bid to acquire Ferrari goes south, and the insult to both Ford the company and Ford the man is as personal as the old fox Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) can make it. That’s when Shelby is brought in to clean the Italians’ clock in their own European backyard. His team’s attempts to build a faster, lighter race car — with help from British auto designers and “help” from the corporate suits in Dearborn — result in the Ford GT40.
I don’t know bupkes about cars and you may not either, but I do know this: “Ford v Ferrari” feels custom-built for maximum audience pleasure. There are speed bumps: The movie needs a bad guy (it doesn’t, actually) and finds one in Ford VP Leo Beebe, who Josh Lucas plays with the sniveling broadness of a vaudeville villain. And even though the screenwriters have done what they can to get a woman in there somewhere, the role of Miles’ wife, Mollie, still feels underwritten. (Shelby was married seven times, but the movie doesn’t even go there.)
On the other hand, Mollie Miles is played by Caitriona Balfe, the elegantly electric star of the Starz time-traveling-with-Scottish-beefcake series “Outlander,” and even if the actress is maybe too elegant to be cast as a garage mechanic’s wife, she and Bale have undeniable chemistry together.
But not as much chemistry as Bale and Damon, two outsiders constantly needling each other while trying to take the Ford boys for a ride. (There’s a very funny fist-fight between the two that’s really just a grown-up version of two kids wrestling on the rug.) “Ford v Ferrari” works its patient way toward the 1966 competition at Le Mans, with stops at Daytona and elsewhere, but its true contest is waged on the test tracks and in corporate offices, and it’s a struggle for control between two visions of American know-how: The little guys with grease on their shirts and the company men with the money and the arrogance it buys. The movie knows which side it’s on.
Mangold and his crew alternate between character scenes and vroom-vroom, filming the latter from every angle — below the bumpers, up above, whipping ahead — but keeping the audience firmly oriented in space and time. The race scenes are exciting enough, but what really accelerates the movie forward is the implicit class tension, with Shelby running interference and playing peacemaker between the hotheaded Miles and the people paying the bills and issuing orders. That’s where the movie’s real race is, and behind all the crowd noise is an acknowledgment that it’s not one the Carroll Shelbys and Ken Miles of the world can easily win in the long run. “Ford v Ferrari” is a movie that understands how often triumph involves betrayal.
But that’s making it sound like a bummer, when it’s just a smarter-than-average tribute to some unique individuals, with irresistible scenes like the one in which Shelby takes the stolid, hard-charging Henry Ford II for a little spin and reduces him to — well, see the movie and appreciate what a gifted playwright like Letts (“August: Osage County”) can do with a meaty character role.
If there’s anyone whose eyes we’re seeing the action from, though, it’s probably Miles’s son Peter, played by the fine young actor Noah Jupe (“A Quiet Place,” the upcoming “Honey Boy”). Peter’s worshipful gaze mists “Ford v Ferrari” with memory and arguably keeps the movie from reaching greater depths of character. At the same time, that adoration fits a story about men who could be paid but never bought. Even Henry Ford II gets the message here: Sometimes you have to go along with the ride.
FORD v FERRARI
Directed by James Mangold. Written by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, Jason Keller. Starring Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Caitriona Balfe, Noah Jupe, Jon Bernthal, Tracy Letts. At Boston theaters, suburbs, Jordan’s IMAX Reading and Natick. 152 minutes. PG-13 (some language and vroom-vroom peril)