This year, the buddy picture returned to us, and oh, how we’ve missed it. We’ve had DiCaprio and Pitt in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. We have De Niro and Pacino in The Irishman. And now we’ve also got Damon and Bale in Ford v Ferrari. All three movies are set in a gorgeously reimagined American past. All three movies offer portraits of men forged in the fires of war who do not emote, do not share their feelings, and have a distinctly pre-feminist way about them. All three movies give their leading actors the kinds of star turns—glamorous, challenging, mysterious—that people will remember for decades. I’ve praised Once Upon a Time and The Irishman here, so now let me heap praise on the bracing, exciting, brilliantly executed Ford v Ferrari—the best sports movie in memory.
Ford v Ferrari is about a time half a century ago when race car drivers were among the most glamorous and well-known people on earth. (Hard to say exactly when that stopped being the case—maybe around the time that kids stopped looking up to airline pilots.) This is the real-life story of Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a slick and charming Southerner forced to the sidelines of the sport by a heart condition.
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Henry Ford II, known as "the Deuce" (the actor-playwright Tracy Letts, in a glorious performance) has both failed with his Edsel and has been outmaneuvered in a negotiation by the greatest auto executive of his time, Enzo Ferrari. The Deuce is determined to have a Ford beat a Ferrari in the notoriously dangerous 24-hour endurance race in and around the French town of Le Mans, and his aide Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) hires Carroll Shelby to build it.
Shelby, in turn, insists on having his friend Ken Miles (Christian Bale) as the driver of the car. Miles is an irascible, perfectionist Brit, and a genius not only behind the wheel but as an automotive designer—taking on, with Shelby and his team, the task of creating a car both light enough to go 200 miles an hour and tough enough to endure the rough terrain of Le Mans. It is the conceit of the movie—I have no idea how close to factual this is—that Miles gets crosswise of a Ford executive named Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas in a sublimely weaselly turn) who wants him gone. So the drama is not only whether Ford will best Ferrari at Le Mans but whether Ken Miles will get to be the driver who does it.
Boy oh boy, does this movie—directed with command and ease by James Mangold, whose last picture was the gritty superhero story Logan—deliver the goods. The racing scenes are thrilling. The boardroom scenes are perfection. Most important, the way it reveals the depths of the relationship between Shelby and Miles until we can see just how deeply admiring they are of each other is a true storytelling accomplishment.
Who knows whether Miles was as difficult—or as privately sweet and charismatic—as he’s made out to be here, but the sharp screenplay (by brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller) turns him into a vivid and detailed character and gives Bale a rare chance (for him) to come across as an all-out, 2,000-watt lightbulb of a movie star. Damon, as always, is so unassumingly and unshowily good that it’s easy to overlook just how accomplished and generous an actor he is.
Ford v Ferrari is not without its flaws. For one thing, it never bothers to explain the rules governing these endurance races, so there’s a genuinely confusing moment during the climactic scenes when we see Bale is asleep at his car’s Le Mans pitstop while the race is ongoing. And the effort to depict Miles’s wonderfully loving relationship with his wife (Caitriona Balfe) goes off the rails in two strange and unconvincing scenes—one in which she pretends she doesn’t know him and another when she drives recklessly because she’s mad at him for reasons that aren’t at all clear.
Even so, Ford v Ferrari is just a terrific piece of old-fashioned moviemaking—a buddy movie of the old school. If you don’t like it, that means you probably don’t generally like good and fun things.