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Review: Revved-up 'Ford v Ferrari' a precise, well-oiled machine

Matt Damon and Christian Bale head up racing drama about Ford's quest to topple Ferrari's racing team in the 1960s

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Like a well-built race car, "Ford v Ferrari" is a powerful machine, all its components working as one and providing a muscular ride across the finish line.  

Director James Mangold ("Walk the Line") drives this mighty vehicle, using the backdrop of 1966's 24 Hours of Le Mans race to tell a story about creative inspiration, the importance of individuals and the perilous nature of corporate group think. It's a story for car buffs whose themes ring universal.   

Matt Damon and Christian Bale in "Ford v Ferrari."

Matt Damon is race car designer Carroll Shelby, who is hired by Ford to build a car and head up a team that's going to win the Le Mans, an arduous marathon of a race that by the mid-'60s Ferrari had won five years running. 

Christian Bale is Ken Miles, a cantankerous driver who doesn't like to be told what to do. Shelby hires Miles to lead Ford's race lineup, which isn't quite what Ford has in mind; led by Tracy Letts' Henry Ford II, Ford is portrayed as a team of risk-averse, by-the-book company men. Yes, they want to win, but they want to win their way, the Ford way. 

This sets up a clash of ideals between Miles, Shelby and Ford; yes, they're racing Ferrari, but much of the movie is about Ford's war with itself over the Le Mans race. Call it "Ford v Ford."  

Jon Bernthal captures a young Lee Iacocca as an ambitious, budding exec, not yet a titan of industry, but on his way. Josh Lucas is Leo Beebe, a sniveling yes man to Henry Ford. 

The screenplay throws these elements together, and Mangold revs them all up, whipping around every turn and gunning for the perfect lap. His racing scenes are exhilarating, all the more effective in that they're used sparingly, and Bale and Damon are a strong pairing at the film's center. 

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The only speedbumps come with Caitriona Balfe's Mollie, Miles' wife. She's stuck on the sidelines while her man is off at work, and Balfe isn't given enough to work with to avoid being the concerned wife. (As Miles' son Peter, Noah Jupe is also restricted to being a symbol of Miles' home life.)

Mangold gives viewers the thrill of being behind the wheel of a race car at 7,000 RPMs, but maintains a steady balance between the technical and human sides of his story. "Ford v Ferrari" is less about the particulars of its engines and more about the personalities driving them; It's about men, their determination, their insecurities and their loyalties. And when it's firing on all cylinders, this baby hums. 

'Ford v Ferrari'


Rated PG-13: for some language and peril

Running time: 152 minutes