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Theater review. Possible spoilers. This is one of those rare 2 ½ hour movies that actually flies by quickly and is served up best in a good theater on a big screen with lots of Dolby Atmos speakers. Gearheads and auto historians should already know Henry Ford II (Henry the Duece as he was known by his employees) once tried to buy Ferrari.
In the mid-sixties Ford was mostly known for building boring cars. At the time Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) tried to change that image, first with the Mustang and later with the idea to get more involved with racing. The plan was to buy Ferrari who was close to bankruptcy but unmatched on the Formula 1 circuit. Presumably the deal was close to being consummated but Iacocca was backstabbed by the Italians. They wanted no part of being part of Ford, especially when it came to racing. Instead Ford was used to up a competitive bid from Fiat. Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) looked pretty smart and he sent the Ford team home with their tail between their legs. He capped things off by using a string of derogatory epithets ending with Henry being fat.
When Iacocca relayed the message to Henry (Tracy Letts), Ford decided to build a new race car with no financial limits. Iacocca and Henry’s EVP Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) were charged with development. Iacocca went looking for a design engineer and a driver. He first went to Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) who was the only American driver to win at Le Man. He did it in a Ford powered Cobra of his own design. He agreed but wanted problematic driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) as his primary driver.
Miles and Shelby had a past which didn’t always go well, but Shelby knew Miles would get the most out of the car that would eventually be built, the legendary Ford GT 40 (the 40 had to do with ground clearance we learn). We see up close and personal how the erasable Miles’s temperament, public persona and filterless speech was going to be a problem. Beebe in particular wanted no part of Miles being on the team. It took plenty of manipulation and diversion to get Ford’s approval, putting friendship and his personal finances at great risk.
Caitriona Balfe stars as Miles’s wife Mollie, but she has little to do in this macho-focused film. The film by director James Mangold (“Logan” and “Girl, Interrupted”) gets all the elements right. Like all biopics, strategic changes are made to allow the film to flow, which it does, quickly.
The lead up is to the world famous 24 hours of Le Man set in rural France. Ferrari has won the last 5 races leading up to 1966. Ford now has a competitive car if not the beauty and prestige of Ferrari. As Shelby tells Ford, “we’re lighter and faster and if that doesn’t work, we’re meaner.” Although I didn’t think to time it, the race itself seems to run nearly 30 minutes and I’m guessing this is where a big chunk of budget went. From what I know there is minimal CGI. No Lambo’s jumping out of skyscrapers or falling off airplanes. Just some damn fine driving and action photography.
Bale and Damon are terrific in their roles. I’m getting whiffs of Oscar. That goes for cinematographer Phedon Papamichael and the editors. One of the best movies of the year. Highly recommended.