Movie Monday: Ford v Ferrari

This is a very good film that has just about finished its run in movie houses.  If you want to see it, your best shot will be to stream it on the biggest screen in your house.  It’s worth a look.

It’s a real story about car guys (with wrenches and in racing suits) butting heads with guys in business suits, about competing cars and competing drivers trying to best each other in various races. It feels authentic and is both moving and thrilling to watch.

The story traces to the mid 1960s, when Enzo Ferrari has all but run his company broke in the interest of building the world’s finest race cars and when he seems to have a lock on Le Mans, the most prestigious auto race in the world.  Henry Ford Jr. (Tracy Letts) is convinced by Lee Iacocca (Robert Bernthal) that Ford’s grandfather’s company needs some pizzazz to make its cars more appealing to the American market.

With Ford’s blessing, Iacocca leads an effort to buy-merge Ford and Ferrari, but cannot get the deal done.  Then Ford Jr. (aka Deuce) commits the company to build a race car of its own.

The technical effort is led by Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a winning Le Mans driver sidelined by heart problems who now makes custom performance cars.

Shelby immediately seeks out Ken Miles (Christian Bale), another motorhead with great driving instincts to work on the project.

Both men understand how cars work the way the way the rest of us understand how to read digital clocks.  They lighten their prototype, enlarge the engine, improve brakes and handling and make sure that, above 200 mph, their racer stays on the road instead of trying to launch into flight.

Ford sends a very good car to LeMans in 1965, and, darn it all, loses to Ferrari.  Shelby credits the loss to the company suits’ veto of Miles as the lead driver, and the team goes back to work with 1966 in mind.

Along the way, there are great scenes of races, individual race driving and the kind of street driving car guys (and sometimes their relatives) do that would scare the bejabbers out of most of us.

Damon does a good job as Shelby, and Letts gives the film a difficult but committed Henry Ford.

But Christian Bale owns the story.  He doesn’t act the part of Ken Miles as much as he occupies the character of Ken Miles, a racer who died early and with a near-mythic reputation that extends to the present day.

All in all, it’s a fine movie, but you have to keep in mind that, when it comes to telling real stories on film, fiction is stranger than fact.  Everything gets amped up — the Ferrari negotiations, the tussles between suits and engineers, the minimization of the number of techs it takes to customize a great race car and perhaps even the racing maneuvers depicted on film.  This article details some of the differences.


Notes

This movie is based a very popular 2010 book, Go Like Hell by A.J. Beame.

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One thing the movie does not explain as well as it might have done is the difference between the 24 Hours at Le Mans and other races.  At Le Mans, all the cars have 24 hours to travel on the 8.5-mile track.  The winner is the car that logs the most miles in the 24-hour period.  Effectively, the race challenges the stamina of the car as well as the skill of its drivers.
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If you know about cars, it almost goes without saying that Shelby went on to have a much longer career.  In the movie he says Ford’s then-hot 1965 Mustang “looks like a secretary’s car,” but he later produced limited-edition Shelby and Cobra models of the pony car that, if you can find one to buy today, probably will cost you as much as $1 million.  For a guy with bad health (and eventually heart and liver transplants) he kept very busy for a very long time and died at 89 in 2012.
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Trend-spotting Vogue magazine’s current edition suggests this movie influenced the latest men’s fashion shows in London.

 

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