Ford v. Ferrari is not just a racing movie. Yes, it has to do with racing—the first act is primarily about assembling a race car, its two main characters are well–known figures within the racing world, and the majority of the runtime is spent either on the track or in the workshop. But you don't have to know precisely what an RPM is, how races work, or what even goes into the construction of a race car to understand the movie.
Ford v. Ferrari is about the true story of Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a temperamental mechanic from England, who ends up testing the first Ford race car in the 1960s under the supervision of his friend and engineer, Caroll Shelby (Matt Damon) (Ed. note: this is the second time Damon has played a man named Carol(l), if you count 30 Rock.)
Miles is a talented, hotheaded driver who throws a wrench at Shelby in front of some of the most important men in the car industry, which cements his reputation as “unstable.” Shelby, on the other hand, is a logical, charismatic manufacturer who has recently retired from racing himself, but is still good at his job. Shelby fights for Miles to be behind the wheel of the first Ford race car, which Shelby has been designing specifically with Miles’ suggestions.
What makes Damon and Bale as good as they are in these parts is a chemistry that permeates every scene. Often, the two are at odds—Shelby insisting that Ken listen to him, follow the rules, and sit quietly so Shelby can get them better contacts—but beneath this tension is trust. The film’s climax, which involves Miles racing at Les Mans, seems like it may be a major point of contention for Shelby—does he tell Miles to do one thing or the other? But ultimately, Shelby simply presents him with two options and lets Miles decide.
Entangled in all of the drama between Miles and Shelby is Miles’ family: his wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) and son Peter (Noah Jupe). In a lesser movie, these two may have ended up being nuisances, or one–note secondary characters that do nothing other than cheer Ken on.
Instead, both of them are fully human—Peter has taken an interest in his father’s work, often following along with his races. Mollie isn't the silent wife who's perfectly calm at all times. She questions Ken and calls him out. Neither of them is perfect, but this film shows Mollie and Peter as actual people.
It feels like a grand American success story is built into the very DNA of the film. The genuine, patriotic Ford seeks to bring down the snobby, arrogant Ferrari. Henry Ford’s son (Tracy Letts), now CEO of his father's company, even gives a speech encouraging the nationalist attitude of his workers to get them out of their marketing slump. A Ford executive goes to Italy and offers Ferrari a deal—a merger—only to get laughed at, sparking that desire for revenge in both Henry Ford II and the audience.
But this patriotic enthusiasm is false. While Ford sells the narrative that they are the underdog to Ferrari’s all–powerful empire, they, too, suppress the voices of the actual men working on their project to beat Ferrari. Shelby is warned early on that Ford doesn’t actually care about the people working on the machine, just how it will look in the press—a moment particularly exemplified at the end of a race, when they insist that Miles slows down in order for a picture–perfect finish at Les Mans.
What holds the most poetic weight in this film is the car itself—not its literal parts, but the way it comes alive. The dialogue skirts around the obvious metaphors, but still, Miles monologues to his son about the feeling of the track, the transcendental state it puts him in, and how he becomes aware of the car and the world in slower motion. Luckily, none of these statements come off as cheesy. Every detail on the road and every roar of the car is carefully understood by Miles. It is not supernatural power that has made him so good, but attentiveness and drive.
Ford v. Ferrari, overall, is a racing movie that even appeals to people who don't like racing. The plot is compelling and easy to understand, and its characters aren't overdone tropes, but rather unique depictions. Even if you don't care about cars, you might care about the people behind them.