Quick: Who won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966?
If you know the answer without Googling, then I probably don’t have to sell you on “Ford v Ferrari,” James Mangold’s nimble and crafty reconstruction of a storied moment in the annals of auto racing. You will probably go in prepared to spot torque differentials and historical discrepancies that escaped my notice. (Please let me know what you find.) If, on the other hand, you are (like me) a bit of a motor-sport ignoramus, then you might want to stay away from web-search spoilers and let the film surprise you.
It is, all in all, a pleasant surprise. Partly because Christian Bale and Matt Damon, the lead actors, are really good, and are supported by a fine cast that includes Tracy Letts in one of the best and least-expected crying scenes of the year. And partly because the car stuff — in the garage and on the track — is crisply filmed and edited, offering a reminder that movies and automobiles have a natural affinity and a lot of shared history. From the Keystone Kops days to “The Fast and the Furious,” some of the best motion in motion pictures has come from gasoline-powered vehicles.
But “Ford v Ferrari,” written by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller, pushes the connection further, suggesting subtle but unmistakable links between racing and filmmaking as aesthetic and economic propositions. Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles, the car designer and driver played by Damon and Bale, are risk-hungry free spirits gambling with someone else’s money, unruly individualists who nonetheless depend on the good will of a large corporation.
The conflict alluded to in the title — between the assembly lines of Detroit and the artisanal workshops of Modena, Italy, for supremacy in the racing world — is a bit of a red herring. The real struggle is between the managers and bureaucrats of the Ford Motor Company and the mavericks whose work rolls out onto the track bearing the Ford logo. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine Carroll and Ken as filmmakers fighting with studio suits for creative control.
They are, in any case, cool guys of a particular vintage, avatars of a salty, clean-cut, old-style masculinity that is enjoying a somewhat improbable vogue these days. Their effort to build a Le Mans-winning racecar for Ford is an engineering challenge similar in ambition to the Apollo program commemorated in Damien Chazelle’s “First Man,” though smaller in scale. The chalk-and-cheese friendship between Carroll, a solid, unflappable Texan, and Ken, a spidery, easily flapped Cockney, might remind you of the bond between Brad Pitt’s and Leonardo DiCaprio’s characters in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.”
Like those movies, this one embraces a view of the ’60s in which the square American mainstream is where the action is. Well, not every kind of action. If “Ford v Ferrari,” with its loose-limbed narrative rhythm and its love of grease and noise, had been made a few years after the events it depicts, it might have starred someone like Steve McQueen, Robert Redford or even Burt Reynolds — actors who infused whatever else they were doing onscreen with a frank, sometimes aggressive sexuality. Damon and Bale, both charismatic movie stars, don’t put out quite the same kind of erotic magnetism, and their characters are decidedly not tomcats or horndogs. Ken is the picture of uxoriousness, devoted to his sighing, supportive wife, Mollie (Caitriona Balfe), and their son, Peter (Noah Jupe), who idolizes his dad. Carroll, as far as we know, has no personal life at all.
I’m not complaining, just taking note of a shift in mores. Onscreen and maybe off, ambition has taken the place of lust. Work is the new sex. And work — its pleasures and frustrations, the interference of bosses and the camaraderie of colleagues — is what propels “Ford v Ferrari.”
Carroll, a former Le Mans champion who gave up competitive driving for health reasons, knows Ken, who runs a struggling repair shop in Los Angeles, from the American racing circuit. The two of them take up a commission bestowed by Henry Ford II (the wonderful Letts). His family business is threatened by the doughtiness of its products, which restless young baby boomers don’t want to buy. Beating Ferrari at Le Mans will be part of a rebranding strategy that also includes the introduction of the sporty Mustang.
The Italians are foils — old-world artisans and Machiavellian schemers whose ethos is embodied by the company patriarch, Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone). Carroll and Ken don’t have much to do with their rivals before the race itself, tangling instead with Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), a frustrated semi-visionary in the ranks of the Ford executives, and Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), who is given control of the company’s racing program.
Beebe, with his side-parted hair, his boxy suits and his unctuous grin, is the designated villain, with a special animus against Ken, who is evidently “not a Ford man.” Carroll is caught in the middle, since he is technically Ken’s boss and the person Ford has, somewhat reluctantly, decided to trust. The boardroom intrigue enlivens the raceway drama, and vice versa.
“Ford v Ferrari” is no masterpiece, but it is — to invoke a currently simmering debate — real cinema, the kind of solid, satisfying, nonpandering movie that can seem endangered nowadays. (I should note that Mangold’s résumé includes “Logan” and “The Wolverine,” two of the more interesting superhero movies of the last decade.) To put it in the simplest terms: You may not think you care who won at Le Mans in 1966, but for two and a half hours, you will.