On its surface, Ford v Ferrari is about an unlikely duo trying to design a racecar to defeat the best in the world. It’s not exactly a universal topic. Yet Matt Damon and Christian Bale, under the direction of James Mangold, find a way to make it easily accessible, because it’s also a story about two guys with a shared dream attempting to conquer seemingly insurmountable odds. Indeed, one of the best compliments earned by Ford v Ferrari is that you don’t have to be interested in cars (let alone car manufacturing) to enjoy it.

After Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girrone) insults Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) and the Ford Motor Company, Ford owner Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) vows revenge. Knowing Ferrari’s claim to fame is winning the annual 24 Hours of Le Mans race in France, Ford charges Iacocca to build a team – and more importantly a car – that can beat Ferrari.

The problem is that The Ford Motor Company has never built such a car, and has no idea how, or where, to start. Enter Carroll Shelby (Damon), a car designer who was the last American driver to win Le Mans. Shelby brings in racecar driver Ken Miles (Bale), who’s all but given up driving when his wife (Caitriona Balfe) encourages him to give Shelby a chance. Both Shelby and Miles are stubborn to a fault, and neither has patience for the inevitable corporate interference. Thankfully Ford v Ferrari keeps this to a minimum, with only a smarmy Josh Lucas as Ford exec Leo Beebe adding frustration.

In fairness, Miles doesn’t give Beebe many reasons to like him. At their first meeting at a press event, Miles insults Beebe and Ford cars. It’s clear Miles has no filter and is unpredictable. Given the amount of money and public attention of the Le Mans race, not to mention Ford’s carefully maintained public image, it’s understandable that Beebe would say Miles is not “Ford enough” and would want someone else to drive Ford’s racecar in Le Mans.

If the film were told from Beebe’s point of view, we would agree with him and empathize. But it’s told from Shelby’s point of view, and Shelby knows Miles needs to drive for them to win, so Beebe becomes the heavy. One presumes there wasn’t enough to the rivalry with Ferrari, so other conflicts were needed to enhance the drama. Far worse movies have done far worse things, to be sure.

Spoiler alert: The Ford GT40 swept the top three positions at Le Mans in 1966 (with a bit of Ford-produced controversy to go along, as company executives attempted to order Miles to drop back even with the second place car driven by Bruce McLaren in order to produce a tie finish).

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Ford GT40s would go on to win at Le Mans again and again. On a tragic note, Miles would die in 1966 testing Ford’s J car, in development to be the next supercar.

Both Damon and Bale are terrific, but it’s Bale’s kooky, off-the-wall performance that you’ll remember. Miles was eccentric, brash and brilliant when it comes to cars, and it’s a credit to Bale that we always like him even when he’s far from likeable. He and Damon play off one another notably well, particularly during a fight scene in which both look inept and pathetic.

Ford v Ferrari is yet another strong drama from Mangold, who at his best elevates material to something better than expected (Girl, InterruptedWalk The LineLogan). This film is among his best, and among the best of the year.

FORD V FERRARI ( 3½ ) Directed by James Mangold . Starring Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Remo Girrone, Caitriona Balfe . 152 min. . At Century Cinemas Del Monte, Century Marina, Maya Cinemas, Lighthouse Cinema, Northridge Cinema

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