Ford v Ferrari review – motor-racing drama gets stuck in first gear

Matt Damon and Christian Bale star in a handsome-looking but dull account of the rivalry between the US and Italian car-makers

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.

Cup holder … Christian Bale as driver Ken Miles.
Cup holder … Christian Bale as driver Ken Miles. Photograph: Merrick Morton/AP

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.


Peter Bradshaw in Toronto

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Harriet review – Cynthia Erivo is sublime as legendary slave rebel
The remarkable life of freedom fighter Harriet Tubman is told with heart and cinematic craft in Kasi Lemmons stirring biopic

Peter Bradshaw in Toronto

11, Sep, 2019 @12:39 PM

Article image
Ordinary Love review – Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville in potent weepie
Strong, sensitive performances assist a melancholic drama about a couple dealing with the fallout from a cancer diagnosis

Peter Bradshaw in Toronto

13, Sep, 2019 @7:25 PM

Article image
Hustlers review – J-Lo's stealing strippers saga is a vicarious thrill
The multi-hyphenate star delivers a standout turn in a snappy, fact-based caper about strippers scamming Wall Street bankers

Benjamin Lee in Toronto

08, Sep, 2019 @3:43 AM

Article image
The Two Popes review – Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce divine in papal faceoff
Hopkins’s Benedict XVI and Pryce’s Francis I make for a winning Vatican odd couple in this succession drama whose careful script ends not with a bang but a wimple

Peter Bradshaw in Toronto

12, Sep, 2019 @8:50 PM

Article image
The Aeronauts review – charming balloon adventure way up where the air is clear
Theory of Everything stars Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones reunite for a sweet tale of daredevil balloonists in Victorian England

Peter Bradshaw in Toronto

10, Sep, 2019 @5:01 PM

Article image
Why Ford v Ferrari should win the best picture Oscar
Christian Bale and Matt Damon are stellar in this motor-sport drama, an ode to petrolheads, grease-monkeys and the 60s – and audiences love it

Paul MacInnes

31, Jan, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
Radioactive review – Rosamund Pike flounders in toxic Marie Curie biopic
Persepolis director Marjane Satrapi has made a stuffy and patronising drama that does a great disservice to its undeniably fascinating subject

Charles Bramesco in Toronto

07, Sep, 2019 @4:50 PM

Article image
The Promise review – Oscar Isaac tackles Armenian genocide in cliched but involving romance
Hotel Rwanda director Terry George takes on a largely uncovered part of history in this often soapy but well-intentioned and extravagantly mounted epic

Benjamin Lee

13, Sep, 2016 @10:57 AM

Article image
Just Mercy review – star power lifts sturdy, emotive legal drama
Full-blooded performances from Michael B Jordan and Jamie Foxx add weight to a powerful, if by-the-numbers fact-based tale

Benjamin Lee in Toronto

07, Sep, 2019 @3:06 PM

Article image
True Mothers review – Naomi Kawase's heartfelt yet frustrating drama
The director of The Mourning Forest returns with another sensitive film, this time about a difficult adoption, yet plot holes prove distracting

Peter Bradshaw

13, Apr, 2021 @10:17 AM