When it comes to cars, my knowledge basically stops at knowing how to drive them. The case could even be made that my knowledge doesn’t extend that far as I am unable to drive stick (I hope you’re reading this dad!). So even with the talent involved in Ford v Ferrari and a general excitement at seeing what everyone was calling an adult drama with a fairly hefty budget, I was somewhat apprehensive going into the film, fearing it would lose me quickly with the talk of cars that I wouldn’t understand or simply wouldn’t care about. Thankfully, those fears were quickly dispelled, and the film got technical in ways that were easy to understand and always had enough human drama going on to keep it interesting.
Much like my knowledge of cars, my knowledge of racing was fairly limited before I saw the film. How could anyone seriously be excited by watching some people drive in circles for hours on end, occasionally stopping to refuel? Those of you who are familiar with some of my more infamous opinions are no doubt aware that the film I despise the most was essentially that – driving in a big circle with the occasional stop – yet many people praise it endlessly, so maybe I’m just missing something the rest of the world already knows. To my surprise, the race at the center of Ford v Ferrari, 24 Hours of Le Mans, involved a track that was not circular and a race that lasted a full day, so it was already more interesting than I had initially anticipated.
As expert technical craftsmanship unfolded on screen and off, it became absolutely enthralling. Even with essentially no knowledge of how cars work, as they built the Ford they hoped would beat Ferrari at Le Mans, all the characters debated ways of improving their vehicle in plain language that made it easy to understand. Still, the language they used never seemed to be dumbed down for the audience members like myself to the point it would be tedious to watch for those people who do know about automobiles. Instead, they used a succession of simple solutions to complex problems that made everything easy to understand and almost made me feel like I could fix my own car when a warning light came on later that night.*
The film’s central players, Matt Damon, as car designer and retired racer Caroll Shelby, and Christian Bale, as Ken Miles, the hot-headed driver who would race in 1966, are understated in comparison to some of their other performances but nonetheless superb in their roles. Best when they get to clash over their differing notions of what will best lead them to victory, both halves of their bromance play off of each other’s differences wonderfully and capture that joking antagonism close friends tend to have. Rounding out the principle cast are Tracy Letts as Henry Ford II, a role that he seems to relish as he explores the insecurities of an immensely powerful man, and Jon Bernthal as Lee Iacocca, proving he should no longer be relegated to five-minute performances in feature length films.
Though the performances are all great, as characters often remind us throughout the film, both the human and the technical aspects that are integral to winning the race. Luckily, the technical aspects are all here. The race scenes are stunning, with camerawork that alternates between putting the viewer directly in the car and letting the viewer be a member of the audience watching the races, both providing an adrenaline rush. This is further cemented by some of the best sound design of the year, capturing the roar of engines, the tires gliding across the terrain, and the sounds of the wind and rain slapping the speeding vehicles.
While the racing scenes are stunning, especially the final stretch at Le Mans, and the human moments are all well-conceived and acted, there are stretches where, like the races it depicts, the excitement of it all cools off and it can seem to drag before getting back into it in full force. These moments may not have seemed so slow in another film, but in one that is often pumping the gas like this, the disparity with the more intense moments was huge. Still, Ford v Ferrari let me really feel like I knew about cars and racing for the first time in my life. It may not have been latent with grand philosophical statements, but it did let me briefly see the world from a different perspective and let me understand some of the people I have encountered in my life a bit better and I can’t ask for a film to do much more than that.
* I did not know this at the time but the warning light was telling me I needed more air in my tires so I probably could have solved this problem on my own. Like I said, I don’t know about cars.