It goes without saying that James Mangold’s latest, a biopic about Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles’ play to win the Le Mans race for Ford in 1966, has been one of the most anticipated films of this awards season we are now seeing in full swing. With Christian Bale and Matt Damon starring, people have been eagerly waiting to see if Mangold would be able to recapture some of the success that made his partnership with Joaquin Phoenix for the 2005 Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line such a huge hit. Shortly after cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (who has worked with Mangold previously on both Walk the Line and 3:10 to Yuma, 2007) presented the film to the enthused audience at Chicago, it became clear that the film would be much more standard studio biopic fare than expected. That shouldn’t necessarily be taken to mean it is a bad thing, however, it should also be noted that there is a definite ceiling on what feelings this film can elicit, too.
From the beginning, the film starts to hit narrative beats in every predictable way. We set up Bale’s Ken Miles as the fairly unhinged husband and father (although he appears good in those respects) who just so happens to be the best race car driver in the world, apparently. Carroll Shelby, played with wonderful charisma by Matt Damon, seeks to reel in Miles so together they can win this race for Henry Ford II (a subtly great turn from Tracy Letts), eager to beat Ferrari and the Italians at their own game, reclaiming Ford’s status as a “cool” car company. This is the entire crux of the narrative and in that sense, it plays out exactly as you would expect. However, there is certainly a good amount of fun and excitement to be had in between.
Most of the thrills the movie has to bring come from its inherent testosterone and overt masculinity popping off the screen. There is really only one female character in the film, that of Miles’ wife played warmly by Caitriona Balfe. She is supportive of Miles throughout, as well is their son, an inspired child actor performance from Noah Jupe. The majority of the film’s excitement does come from men battling with each other for dominance and a sense of fulfillment. We see this from just about every male character. Damon, Bernthal, and Letts are the best examples of this as their motives are clear and we see them openly working towards absolution. Damon’s performance in particular really carries the film and is the one the audience is meant to connect with the most. He desperately wants to succeed in this race that Ford has put him in charge of winning for them and he knows Bale’s character is the racer to pull it off. His determination to get this victory for himself, for Ford, for Bale’s character, and for America, is what propels the movie forward and makes us cheer with great fervor.
Audiences will know soon after the film’s opening what this movie is and how they feel about it, as it is nothing we haven’t seen before. Coming away from it, the comparison that continues to make sense is with 2004’s Miracle, the story of the 1980 U.S. men’s hockey team. Similar to that movie, Ford v Ferrari is about America with something to prove against foreign powers and to themselves. It is a feel-good movie in that sense, and while it certainly has more technical prowess and acting star power (all due respect to Kurt Russell) than that film, it still seems to fall into that same lane of being another by-the-books American sports biopic. This formula will surely work better for some than it does for others. It is well made, inspired, features larger than life actors and performances, and is a fundamentally entertaining couple of hours at the movies. However, while Ford was able to blow by Ferrari in the mid to late sixties, Ford v Ferrari isn’t going to blow anyone away at the movie theater.