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Ford v Ferrari is worth watching, even with the Hollywood treatment

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Ford v Ferrari is a story that’s been a long time coming—in fact, it’s been over 53 years since Ford beat Ferrari at Le Mans. It took that long to take the bones of that story and bring it to the big screen as a drama. And it’s a story worth telling. A sort of David-versus-Goliath tale, though sometimes, considering Ferrari’s experience in endurance racing (five back-to-back victories at Le Mans leading up to their defeat in ’66), you wonder if tiny Ferrari is really the Goliath.

This will be classified by many as a racing movie, but I think its falls more into the genre of a buddy flick, something like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The two buddies, in this case, being Matt Damon in the role of Carroll Shelby and Christian Bale as Shelby’s ace development and on-track driver, Ken Miles.

Bale plays the more interesting role—Miles is portrayed as a tortured soul, a WWII veteran (first Africa, then Europe with the British army) who is a failure as an independent mechanic because he can’t help mouthing off to people. He is shown as strongly opinionated, and Shelby spends half the movie trying to get Miles to shut up so he can stay on the team.

The tension extends to Miles’s home, with his wife Mollie constantly trying to get him to quit racing on the grounds that there are dangers that weren’t present earlier in her husband’s driving career, like breaking the 200 mph barrier. Shelby’s personal life isn’t touched on one whit. No wives, ex-wives, girlfriends, children, nada. The drama in Ford v Ferrari is totally centered on Miles, who wants to please his wife but still has his own racing ambitions, among them to take on three big events in one year.

The racing photography in the film is first-rate, getting the audience down in the car at the waist-high level and right into the heart of the action. According to You Tube interviews of the film’s creator, James Mangold, the racing sequences were shot at many different locations, some even in France. To stitch a single lap into a sequence meant matching lighting, dirt on the car, and everything else from footage shot in California, Georgia, and France. And they pull off this feat.

The Ford cars, being the stars of the story, get exponentially more screen time than the Ferraris, but the Maranello cars look good when they are on screen. Other marques competing at the time, like Porsche, are barely mentioned and only glimpsed, never mentioned as contenders. I was astonished at how close the cars run next to each other, sometimes a couple inches apart at 200 mph, and how the film captures that tension.

Just as interesting as the Shelby-Miles buddy-buddy story is the way Ford v Ferrari portrays the racers against the money people and sponsors. In this case, it’s the Dearborn contingent, with Tracey Letts playing Henry Ford II and Josh Lucas playing Leo Beebe, a top Ford executive put in charge of racing. The Beebe character is framed as the arch villain here, taking a dislike to Miles from the word “go” and trying to get him fired from the team over and over. Josh Lucas does a great job as Beebe, portraying a two-faced executive, as he simultaneously tries to wield power over Shelby as a way of  kissing up to his boss, Henry Ford II.

An then there’s Enzo. Yes, Enzo Ferrari is in the film, portrayed by Eritrean actor Remo Girone. He’s first shown at his factory, where he hosts the Ford Motor Co. executives, including Lee Iacocca, in a tour around his shop, where both street cars and race cars are being built. Later, there is a meeting with Ford executives where Ferrari and his minions leave in a huff. The film hints that Enzo was conducting negotiations with Fiat behind the scenes, and only entertaining the idea of selling his company to Ford to drive the offer up from Fiat.

Two standouts in the supporting cast are Noah Jupe, playing Miles’s son Peter, and Caitriona Balfe as Mollie Miles. The kid delivers an Oscar-worthy performance, with his efforts getting an emotional boost if you already know the real life end to the Ken Miles story. As Miles’s wife, Balfe brilliantly portrays the struggle of the spouse who wants to be supportive, but can’t ignore the terrible dangers associated with racing.

Ford v Ferrari is a new take on a  car racing movie compared to standards like Steve McQueen’s Le Mans or the more recent Rush. There’s still the same jealously between drivers, and the shots of nose-to-nose duels down the straights, but Ford v Ferrari is primarily a buddy movie that happens to take place in the world of cars.

In one interview about the movie, Mangold said that after all the filming was done he had a rough cut which ran three and a half hours. The released film is just over two and a half hours. When pressed on whether we could see the longer cut in a home version, Mangold joked “there might not even be Blu-ray by that time.” Mangold also said he is of two minds on releasing any of the cut footage—feeling that the theatrical release should be the definitive version. Still, I think there’s a hard core pocket of Ford enthusiasts who will want to see every scene filmed, and then judge for themselves whether their inclusion tells the story better. I’d be first in line to buy an extended cut if it became available.

For the car buffs, Ford v Ferrari is pure Hollywood in that it takes events that happened and conjoins and modifies them for dramatic impact. Consequently, those who have read a lot of books on Shelby, and Ford, and Ferrari, will get stuck on a few things that will distract them from enjoying the film, such as Enzo Ferrari at Le Mans. It is well known the only race track he went to in the Sixties was Monza, mostly to observe testing. But, I’ll admit it makes the villain more villainous if you see him at the track, observing the Shelby team. Shelby also wasn’t involved in the 1964 racing season of the Ford GT. Ford thought they could do it all themselves, and campaigned it the first year without Shelby. It was only in the winter of 1964 that they, hat in hand, took the beat-up race cars to Shelby and asked him to take over development. And though there are Cobra roadsters throughout the movie, it is never explained what that car is and why the Cobra wasn’t considered as a car that could beat Ferrari at Le Mans. There’s also a lack of explanation on why the Cobra Daytona coupe couldn’t contend with Ferrari (its top speed was only 175 mph, not enough to catch the 200-mph Ferrari prototypes).

Lastly, without getting too far into spoiler territory, Fox didn’t bother to get a representative J-car (a glued-together chassis prototype that evolved into the Mk. IV) that Miles tested after the Le Mans. With all the money spent on true-to-life replicas for the big race, this seems like a miss.

But there’s plenty to love here for gearheads. The tale of Texas wheeler-dealer Carroll Shelby (a failed chicken farmer before he began racing, though that’s not mentioned in the movie) and his rise to international racing glory was a story itching to be told. I think Shelby’s story will be told again, perhap in a TV series that pours some light into the corners of the man’s life not lit in this version. But still, Ford v. Ferrari is  entertaining  even for those who aren’t into car racing, which is the whole point of how the movie takes the “based on a true story” approach to bend history and appeal to a larger audience.

THE AUTHOR: Wallace Wyss is the author of SHELBY: The Man, the Cars, the Legend and 17 other books. As a fine artist, he is portraying Sixties racing in oils, and can be reached about that at Mendoart7@gmail.com.