By Leah Greenblatt
September 04, 2019 at 06:13 PM EDT
Merrick Morton/Fox

Ford v Ferrari is the rare kind of David-and-Goliath story that actually asks you to root for Goliath; technically, at least, the hero of the movie is the Ford Motor Company — hardly the little coupe that could in any context.

But really it’s about two men, Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and Ken Miles (Christian Bale), who effectively used the corporate behemoth to fulfill their shared dream of building and bringing the world’s fastest car to victory at France’s Le Mans, the legendary (and legendarily brutal) 24-hour road race.

That Ford was able to use them too is what landed their story in the history books; and now it’s made for a big, glossy crowd-pleaser of a film, high on horsepower, engine grease, and clean-sweat ‘60s masculinity.

Damon’s Shelby, in a cowboy hat and Bill Clinton-esque Southern rasp, is a champion already sliding into the sunset of his career when then-Ford GM Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) approaches him with the idea of making a machine nimble enough to beat the arrogant small-batch Italians who think their cars are sloppy, slow, and ugly. (They’re right; as a design company, Ford is floundering.)

In turn, Shelby recruits Miles, a loose-cannon Brit who’s moved to California with his wife (Outlander‘s Caitriona Balfe) and young son (Noah Jupe) in search of some kind of fresh start, but has mostly ended up with mounting debts and a tax-leined repair shop. (It’s fun to see the lean, brown Bale — a thousand miles from his swollen-tick Dick Cheney in Vice — playing a role so close to the bone again.)

Bernthal’s Iacocca knows enough at least to be aware of who these guys are, and he sees the possibilities in changing Ford’s dowdy image via one sexy, supremely photogenic victory, even if Henry Ford II (a great, corpulent Tracy Letts) and his consigliere (Josh Lucas, leaning hard into the role of a soulless suit) have serious doubts.

Director James Mangold (Walk the Line) makes two races — Daytona and Le Mans — the centerpieces of the story, and shoots them thrillingly. But he also succeeds in an almost Spielberg-ian way in landing nearly all the laugh lines and emotional beats in between; the signal moments of friendship and connection between the two men (and their clashes, too).

In fact, it’s a movie so well put together as a hero’s tale that it moves along almost too smoothly; the script by brothers Jez and John Henry Butterworth hits its marks of tragedy and triumph with a kind of shiny, measured inevitability. But there’s something gratifying too, in a nicely old-fashioned way, in being carried across the finish line by such fine actors and capable filmmaking; to sit shotgun in the still, dark safety of a theater, and just enjoy the ride. B+

(Ford vs. Ferrari premiered at the Telluride Film Festival; it will be in theaters Nov. 15.)

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