James Mangold is one of Hollywood’s most reliable filmmakers. He’s been working in the industry for over twenty years and his resume includes an Oscar-nominated biopic with 2005’s “Walk the Line,” an old school Western in 2007’s “3:10 to Yuma,” and a pair of Marvel Comics superhero flicks – 2013’s “The Wolverine” and 2017’s “Logan.”
The first of these comic book adventures was a fairly solid character study until it went off the rails thanks to a studio-mandated CGI finale. Still, it earned decent reviews and a fine box office return. “Logan,” however, was Mangold off the leash – an example of a major studio taking a risk and actually letting an artist make the art the way he wanted to. The end result was universal acclaim, $600 million at the worldwide box office and an Academy Award nomination for Mangold’s screenplay. Who better to tell a story of fighting the system, doing things on your own terms and proving everybody wrong?
“Ford v Ferrari” is the true story of American automotive designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and British race car driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale). In the 1960s, Ford Motor Company set out to make a car capable of defeating the perennial champion, Ferrari, at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, an overnight endurance race in France. Toppling Ferrari would be no easy task, after the company won the race six years in a row.
Shelby was tasked with designing the car, and Miles its crash test dummy and potential driver for race day. The result is a proper adult drama set at 200 miles per hour and budgeted at nearly $100 million – a whopping sum for anything outside of a superhero movie these days. Thankfully, Mangold takes all of the free rein he earned with “Logan” and uses it to make this delightful, loud racing epic.
While it sometimes veers into typical biographical and sports movie clichés, the film manages to keep the wheels on the track thanks to Mangold’s assured direction and the charisma of the film’s leading men. When the drama is playing out, Bale and Damon both shine. Bale seems to be having the most fun he’s had in years, more relaxed in a character that doesn’t require a ridiculous weight change or a wonky accent like his most recent chameleon performances have. Damon plays the straight shooter, and despite having the less showy role, shines in some of the film’s more emotional moments. The chemistry between the duo is excellent, and watching their relationship grow from adversarial to friendly is just as satisfying as any of the actual racing sequences.
“Ford v Ferrari” feels like it was made by a man who has experienced the highs and lows of the studio system at the big budget level. There is a meta subtext on the modern studio environment that only makes the story more interesting. You can hear Mangold’s voice in Carroll and Miles as they butt heads with corporate suits over their methods and decision-making.
Thankfully, all of Mangold’s decisions in this film pay off. He is just as capable in the character work as he is with the race scenes, showing off his blockbuster experience. The visual effects and stunts are all top notch, placing the viewer firmly in the driver’s seat as Miles and company tear around some of the world’s most intense tracks.
In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, “Ford v Ferrari” could drag along and hit the potholes associated with typical sports movies, biopics or period dramas. However, thanks to Mangold’s vision, the racing sequences are exhilarating, the drama is engrossing and the 152-minute runtime feels more like an hour and a half.
It’s a dying breed of filmmaking – a big budget drama with a beating heart and spectacle to spare – and Mangold is one of the few directors still getting it done.
Star Rating: 4 out of 5
“Ford v Ferrari” is in theaters this Thursday, Nov. 14.
Johnny Sobczak is an entertainment journalist and graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he majored in Media and Journalism and minored in Global Cinema. Johnny is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and has been writing for Inside the Film Room since August 2019; he was named Senior Writer in January 2020. Johnny spends his days job-hunting, watching films and obsessing over every new detail of Denis Villeneuve's "Dune."