Like most anyone reading RACER.com, I approached Ford v Ferrari with trepidation. The trailers I’d seen promised Hollywood’s usual testosterone-fueled crash-fest portrait of motorsports. Nor was I encouraged when I stumbled into a VIP showing of the movie’s “short” at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum last May in time to hear Matt Damon tell an adoring audience that, in researching his role, he’d quickly learned Carroll Shelby was universally loved by the motorsports community…
On the other hand, I couldn’t help but be heartened when the erstwhile Ken Miles (Christian Bale) noted that the winner’s traditional post-Indy 500 drink of milk began when Louie Meyer quenched his thirst with a bottle of buttermilk.
So yesterday morning when my son’s partner invited me to a sneak preview of Ford v Ferrari, I readily accepted her invite hoping for the best, expecting the worst. As the day unwound, two friends put me in what (IMHO) turned out to be the proper frame of mind. “Remember, racers hate racing movies for the same reasons police hate TV cop shows and doctors can’t stand hospital dramas: they’re so not true to life,” said one. “Whenever my climbing partner and I see a mountaineering movie, he gets all hot and bothered,” opined another. “‘They’re doing it all wrong. That would never happen in real life,’ he says. Me? I don’t worry about the details; I just enjoy the movie for what it is: a movie not a documentary.”
In part because of my friends’ observations, in part because 90% of the racing “action” comes in the final third of the movie and in part because of the talents of Messrs Bale and Damon (and their colleagues both in front and behind the cameras), I turned-down the boost on my inner racer last night and allowed myself the luxury of being entertained by Ford v Ferrari. And against all odds, I enjoyed the experience. I found myself not only liking but caring about Shelby and Miles, two guys I never met but who – by most accounts – rank among racing’s least likable and least-liked if widely respected characters.
Knowing what fate had in store for him (at Le Mans and in the ultimate sense), I couldn’t help but root for Bale’s Miles, the WWII tank commander turned fierce racer and development driver par excellence, despite his flinty and self-destructive character. And not unlike the Senna documentary, I experienced a growing sense of dread as Ford v Ferrari moved toward its inevitable conclusion.
Damon milks the role of the similarly iconoclastic Shelby to the max, whether going toe to toe with Henry Ford II and the other Ford ‘suits’ or committing humorous acts of legerdemain in pursuit of victory at Le Mans. Did Shelby actually subtly sabotage the Ferrari effort in the pits? Who cares? As played by Damon, you have no doubt The Snake would have.
Sure the racing segments are, in the main, hokey, from the Ford GT’s 220 mph speedometer, to Miles and a predictably swarthy Lorenzo Bandini exchanging dagger-eye glares while roaring along the Mulsanne Straightaway. And what’s with the film’s fixation on 7000rpm? One of Isaac Newton’s oft overlooked laws of motion? A wink of appreciation to that mid-60s epic Redline 7000? Speaking of winks, wink and you’ll miss the frame or two of Miles’ co-driver at Le Mans… a fellow named Denis Hulme who, at least, fares incrementally better than Lloyd Ruby.
But I digress into racer-geek mode. In the big picture, Ford v Ferrari captures the essence of two seriously hardcore racers; likewise, while exercising poetic license with the timeline, the film offers a revealing look into the exhausting, thankless and dangerous development work that went into one of America’s most glorious international racing triumphs, along with the reptilian politics behind it.