I have often mentioned my fondness for what I call Granny Movies – Florence Foster Jenkins, Last Chance Harvey, et al – but Ford v Ferrari falls into a category of films I don't see all that often: Dad Movies. In fact it may be the quintessential Dad Movie, being above all a paean to cars, but also to middle-aged male friendship, doing what you love and being good at it, having an awesome son who worships you, having an awesome wife who supports your passions, working for The Man, and sticking it to The Man or at least wanting to.
Am I knocking Ford v Ferrari? Not at all. Although it does get rather wonky about the details of automotive engineering, it's an exciting, intelligent, and surprisingly blunt film about playing professional sports (for car racing is a sport) in a corporate-controlled world. You don't have to be a dad to enjoy it.
The corporations here, as you may have sussed out, are the Ford Motor Company and Ferrari. The time is the mid 1960s. And the plot concerns an intimidating but insecure Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), who hopes to improve Ford's stolid image first by purchasing the glamorous Ferrari, then, when Enzo Ferrari brutally rejects his offer, to beat Ferrari at Le Mans, the legendary 24-hour race held every year in northwest France.
To achieve this seemingly impossible goal, Ford hires Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a former race car driver and the first American to win Le Mans, to build him a car. Forced off the track by a heart condition, Shelby is, by 1963, one of the top race car designers in the world, and he chooses his friend Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a scrappy yet ebullient Brit, to race his car at Le Mans.
What follows is less Ford v Ferrari than Ford v Shelby & Miles, as the two old pros find themselves increasingly at odds with Ford's corporate dictum, embodied by bullying exec Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas). Although friends and colleagues of the real-life Beebe insist he wasn't nearly so overbearing, every movie needs a villain, and Lucas, all flared eyes and sneer, does what is required. Far from being a reductive underdog drama, however, the film probes the many gray areas that Shelby and Miles had to contend with as freelancers for one of the most powerful companies in the United States, breaking their backs (and, in Miles's case, risking his life) for something as meaningless as a car race.
Christian Bale is famous for torturing and reshaping his own body for something as meaningless as a movie. After so many dramatic weight gains and losses for his previous projects, it's refreshing to see him as a normal-looking Englishman for once. Yet he's clearly not slumming it here: he delivers a complex, fully lived-in performance as Ken Miles, letting us see who this unique man really was. It may not be the sort of role that guarantees Bale an Oscar nomination, but it's very impressive work. Matt Damon, for his part, is Matt Damon plus a Texas accent. But there's nothing wrong with that. After all, it takes a big actor to play the straight man.