Ford v Ferrari is a great-looking, handsomely produced but tiringly acted and inert sports drama about two good ol’ boys from the self-admiring world of motor racing – which a character here wryly calls “turning left for four hours”. This picture goes straight ahead for two and a half.
Based on a true story, it is crammed with unearned emotional moments and factory-built male characters whose dedication to their sport we are expected to find adorable and heroic by turns. This is a standard-issue, middleweight biopic-type film, which comes complete with the now mandatory three factual sentences over the closing credits and the black-and-white photographs of the real-life people involved looking less attractive than the Hollywood stars who played them. James Mangold directs, from a serviceable original script by playwright Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller.
A relaxed Matt Damon brings his familiar, untroubled boyish charm to the role of Caroll Shelby, the racing-driver-turned-designer who was hired by Ford in the late 60s to put together a car and a team that would defeat Ferrari, those arrogant Italian artisans who presumed to think that their tiny little outfit had an artistry and flair superior to the corporate mass production of Ford.
Christian Bale plays Ken Miles, the difficult, impulsive, grumpy but brilliant Brit hired by Shelby as his star driver – to the irritation of the pointy-headed, bean-counting suits at Ford, who want an obedient team player. Tracy Letts plays Henry Ford Jr with gusto and Josh Lucas plays Leo Beebe, his creepy assistant. Jon Bernthal does what he can with the underwritten and underimagined role of Lee Iacocca, the Ford executive whose idea it evidently was in the first place for Ford to go into the glamorous but costly world of motor racing.
The person with the most thankless role is Caitriona Balfe, who plays Miles’s adoring wife, Mollie. She doesn’t have that much to do, and this is very much a guys’ film. At one point, an irritable Beebe tells Shelby that Miles has the wrong attitude to be their driver and Shelby derisively replies that they could get some poster boy if he’d like and adds: “Hell, we can set up Doris Day behind the wheel if all you wanna do is lose!” That’s a rather ungallant line that reveals a little bit more about the film’s attitude to women than it intended.
Bale’s performance is the polar opposite of Damon’s laid-back impersonation of Matt Damon. It is an actorly display: a spiky, gawky, angular and borderline ridiculous collection of mannerisms, an accent that mixes Pete Postlethwaite with a bit of Noddy Holder and some body language that, at times, reminded me of Jack Douglas from the Carry On team. Bale drives along muttering, “Giddy-ap!” (Jodie Kidd did something similar behind the wheel when she was on Top Gear.)
The film comes to life briefly in the jolts and crashes that occur when fiercely competitive drivers bash into one another, and we realise that, unlike many other sports, motor racing is life-threateningly dangerous and was especially so in the 60s. So why are they doing it? Why is Miles pursuing something that could widow his beloved wife and make his son, Peter (Noah Jupe), fatherless. What has it all been for? The glory of the Ford motor company? Selfish speed thrills? It’s a mystery that is unsolved at the end of this blandly sentimental movie, which can’t reach out beyond the petrolhead fanbase.