Ken Gross Reviews Ford v Ferrari
Ken Gross Reviews Ford v Ferrari
There’s been a lot of hype over director James Mangold’s latest film, Ford v Ferrari, starring Matt Damon as the irrepressible Carroll Shelby and Christian Bale as moody racing driver and mechanic, Ken Miles. The praise is well-deserved.
With nearly $100 million spent, the racing action is realistic, especially viewed on an IMAX screen, and the intense drama behind Ford Motor Company’s attempts to win the grueling 24 Hours of Le Mans makes for an exciting, fast-paced in-theatre experience.
Lee Iacocca, then Ford’s top product VP, knew Shelby and suggested to Henry Ford II that Shelby’s tiny but racing-savvy Shelby American organization could make the Ford GT40 a world-beater. The result was the GT40 Mk II, extensively developed by Phil Remington and Ken Miles, and packing Ford’s sturdy and reliable 427-CID NASCAR V-8. Shelby American went to France in 1966, and despite internal competition from Ford-backed Holman & Moody, Ford GT40s dramatically finished 1st, 2nd and 3rd, eliminating Ferrari that year. Variations on the GT40 theme would win the 24-hour French classic in 1967, 1968 and 1969 (the latter two years under John Wyer. Ferrari hasn’t won Le Mans since 1965).
That’s the real story, but Mangold only has three hours to tell it. The film’s disclaimer states there were changes for dramatization purposes. So if you’re looking for exact details, you’ll miss John Wyer’s involvement.
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Hollywood’s penchant for drama portrays Ford’s Director of Racing, Leo Beebe played by Josh Lucas, as a tight-suited villain, initially refusing to let Ken Miles compete because the brilliant but irascible driver and developer doesn’t fit the corporate image. Later the character impulsively decides (spoiler alert!) that the winning Fords should cross the finish line simultaneously, thus unwittingly ensuring that Miles would finish second because of a technicality in Le Mans’ arcane rules.
Enzo Ferrari, played by Remo Girone, performs magnificently. Ferrari himself rarely attended races, even in Italy, but he was fictitiously shown at Le Mans in 1966, looming above the pit crews. Phil Remington, characterized by Ray McKinnon, deserved more credit as he solved the GT40’s aerodynamic issues, and ingeniously reworked the car’s overheating brakes so the entire front disc assembly could be replaced during a pit stop. A smart, scheming Lee Iacocca (actor Jon Bernthal) is convincingly played, as is Henry Ford II, played by Tracy Letts. But the hilarious scene where Shelby takes the “Deuce” for a hair-raising ride in a GT40 and scares the man to tears probably never happened in real life. Alex Gurney plays his father, Dan Gurney, who went on to win Le Mans in 1967. I wish there had been more of him in the movie. Derek Hill, Phil Hill’s son, did some of the stunt driving.
Matt Damon doesn’t resemble Carroll Shelby in any physical structure other than the iconic cowboy hat that is present throughout the movie. Still, he plays Shelby convincingly, adopting his Texas drawl and the folksy-but brilliant way Shelby always cut through the nonsense to get results. Damon’s intense portrayal of Shelby’s prominent leadership under pressure is impressive. We see this when Shelby is faced with an onslaught of obedient corporate “suits” and well-intentioned Ford engineers who can’t imagine that intuitive hot rod ingenuity can prevail over sophisticated computer solutions.
Christian Bale, playing Ken Miles, is the star of the film. He had to lose 40 pounds from playing Dick Cheney for the role, a transformation he has made before. Bale captures Miles’ genius and determination to win, and his emotional driving scenes are just terrific.
There’s a minimum of computer-generated imagery (mostly the crowd scenes), and the race-enhanced, intense car-to-car duels, and violent crashes are convincing. The soundtrack is perfect with the guttural roar of the 427 Ford big-blocks, the screams of the Ferraris, and the exhilarating snarls of the 289 Cobras. For the most part, the correct cars are shown, despite their high cost. Still, keen rivet counters will see a few Superperformance kit Cobras and Daytonas, a faux Cal Spider, and a 275GTB that’s out of time and place, along with the electronic scoreboard that’s briefly shown at Daytona, and a 220-mph speedometer in the GT40.
Miles’ profoundly romantic relationship with his understanding wife Molly (Caitriona Balfe) and his closeness with his car enthusiast young son Peter (Noah Jupe) is heartwarming. I am no acting expert, but I think Bale’s and Balfe’s performances could be Oscar-winning. As the introspective Ken Miles, Christian Bale’s deep bond with Matt Damon’s extroverted Shelby is intense and remarkable. In real life, Carroll Shelby was devastated by Miles’ death at Riverside testing the new GT40 J-car Prototype, just two months after Le Mans in 1966. The fact that Ken Miles missed the win at Le Mans, despite his brilliant drive, haunted Shelby for the rest of his life. Okay, the fistfight scene between Shelby and Miles never happened, but hey, that’s Hollywood.
Whether you’re a car enthusiast or not, you’ll appreciate the effort that went into Ford v Ferrari, and you’ll enjoy the film.
I think Carroll Shelby would’ve loved it.
Formerly Executive Director of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, and the award-winning author of 24 books on automobiles, Ken Gross has been the Guest Curator for twelve highly acclaimed exhibitions of classic automobiles and racing cars in fine art museums nationwide. He is a 30-year Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance Chief Class Judge where he judges open-wheel racecars, historic hot rods and rare marques. Ken also serves on the Pebble Beach Selection Committee. A member of ICJAG, the International Chief Judge Advisory Group, and Chief Judge for the Greenwich Concours, Ken officiates at many domestic and international Concours d’Elegance. He has received the Automotive Hall of Fame Distinguished Service Citation, the International Motor Press Association’s Ken W. Purdy award, the Motor Press Guild’s Dean Bachelor Award and the Lee Iacocca award. He lives in Hamilton, VA, with his wife, Patricia Serratore, Senior Vice-President, National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence.