[TIFF 2019] Ford v Ferrari: James Mangold creates a technical masterpiece

How many racing movies can you name? Since 2013’s Rush, there haven’t been many movies that deal in the finer points of the race car. Sure, there’s the Fast and the Furious films, but who can really say those are about racing cars any more?

In Ford v Ferrari, director James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma, Logan) has created a masterfully-told story not just about car racing, but about how the relationship between two men defined a generation of drivers.

It’s a simple story: in 1966, car manufacturer Ford sets their eyes on winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which is the oldest active car race in the world. For years, Italian manufacturer Ferrari has won, and Ford has decided enough is enough. The only problem: they’ve never made a race car, whereas Ferrari has been doing it for years. They enlist the help of former Le Mans winner Carol Shelby (Matt Damon), who in turn enlists his friend – and expert driver – Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Together, the two men put their talents to work for Ford in pursuit of winning Le Mans.

Damon and Bale are, as usual, on point with their portrayals; Shelby is a stoic man, who is willing to go to war to fight for what he believes in, albeit reluctantly. Miles, on the other hand, is ‘not a people person’, as he aptly describes himself. He is fiery and has a short fuse, and often takes it out on other people – including his friend Shelby. Damon and Bale play off each other with regularity, and believably sell you on a pair of men who have been around each other so often for so long that anything they say or do with each other is old hat.

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In a movie largely about car racing, it would be pretty dull to have little-to-no shots of…cars actually racing, right? Thankfully, Mangold manages to include as much of it as possible, including many scenes of Shelby and Miles test-driving the Ford cars. There are lots of wide shots that swoop down behind the rear end of the race car, following it through the stadium or down a dirt road, as the crowds roar in the background.

It’s quite impressive – there doesn’t appear to be a lot of special effects when it comes to the car racing itself. Similarly, the sound effects and general sound design of this movie is top-notch; every purr and growl of an engine can be heard, and for an audience that are not likely experts in car engine manufacturing (like this author, for example), it’s still remarkably easy to tell the difference between the various cars in the race.

Further, Mangold and his crew manage to give the sound design some character of its own; you can hear the strain of an engine as the driver floors the pedal, or the squeal of the brakes when they’re attempting to stop. It’s rare that such sound design bleeds through into the general quality and character of the film, but it happens with such regularity here that it’s disappointing to not hear it in other movies.

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If there’s a fault to be found, it’s that the first act of this film is rather slow. It takes a while to introduce both Shelby and Miles, and even before that, to set up the impetus for Ford wanting to win Le Mans in the first place. That’s not to say it’s not entertaining – by the time the pair are building and racing these vehicles, it’s in full throttle (sorry), but it takes some time to rev up (ugh, sorry again).

Even so, Ford v Ferrari is entertainment that both regular folk and car enthusiasts alike can appreciate. The interplay of Matt Damon and Christian Bale is both funny and meaningful, and the racing itself is thrilling – even if you do already know how this tale ends. At worst, it’s a top three racing movie of all time, and is also easily one of the best films of the year.

Buckle up, folks – you’re going to love this one.

Ford v Ferrari hits theatres in North America on November 15, 2019.

You can find Sho (and his many takes on #TIFF19) on Twitter at @SNSAlli.

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