It’s an odd paradox of the brrrm brrrrm gearhead race car biopic – the last big example was Ron Howard’s Rush, but they’ve been around for a while – is that those likely to be the most enthusiastic about seeing the movie will also know the ending, while the more casual viewer who doesn’t even check wikipedia beforehand will enjoy a bit more suspense about the way the thing breaks down. This also has a counterintuitive approach – slightly covered up by the retitling for international release – in that it has to position an enormously well-funded project backed by an American corporation as the plucky underdog going up against a dominant and smug Establishment represented by an Italian boutique label.
I can see why a Hollywood studio would want to make a movie in which, say, John Ford took on Fellini and won, but writer-director James Mangold understands how hard it is to get us to sympathise with Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) and positions the tycoon as a comic blowhard who doesn’t appreciate the real geniuses hired to beat Ferrari at the Le Mans 24-hour rally. Ford’s motive is that he’s stung by Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone), who has used Ford’s interest in his boutique outfit to drive up the price he demands to sell out to Fiat and sneered (in exquisite Italian) at his ugly cars, ‘sons of whores’ executives and called him a fat pig (and also comparing him badly to his father) – but, though the film is entirely on the side of the team who put Ferrari in his place at Le Mans, Mangold seems to agree with every point the Italian artist makes about the American heir, and the supremely slimy Josh Lucas is on hand in a suit and a bad haircut to be wormily unhelpful at every turn as the marketing man whose interference and bright corporate ideas consistently undermine or take the shine off the achievements of designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a cowboy in a hat, and driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a Brit war veteran with a sharp tongue.
Lee Iacocca, not an uncontroversial figure, is played as the sympathetic suit by Jon Bernthal, an actor more associated with overalls than a three-piece, while any doubts we might have about Miles’ showoff troublemaking are filed away by Caitriona Balfe and Noah Jupe as his loving, tolerant family. Macho movie directors and stars have loved climbing into racecars since the silent era – the likes of Paul Newman and Steve McQueen have even carried roles over into real-life stints behind the wheel – and Bale gets his shot here as an ineffably cool wheelman who retains the habit of muttering about cups of tea and his fellow drivers’ dodgy practices as he overcomes mechanical difficulties (often by hitting problems with a hammer), fends off interference from above or snooty race officials, and goes further and faster than anyone else … to a bittersweet conclusion.
Damon’s retired racer – who gets set on fire before being diagnosed with a dodgy ticker – has to smooth everything over, but still gets to show more defiance than compliance when dealing with his own backers. It’s a big movie in terms of putting old cars on the track, but a relatively intimate one in its dramatic tangle – and, like most films about racing, it reflects the sport by going round in circles so often that there’s a lull (Ford helicopters off for lunch during the rainy slog of the middle-hours) before the stirring climax. Mangold sometimes seems to be evoking the approach Phil Kaufman took to The Right Stuff – cranky comedy about the absurd side of the project combined with old-fashioned, oil-stained movie heroism and some transcendent stuff about ‘the perfect lap’ – but, of course, winning a car rally isn’t the same as venturing into space, even if the casualty rate among drivers is higher than among astronauts.