I’ll have you home for meatloaf and gravy.
The man at the center of James Mangold‘s Ford v Ferrari is Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a former driver turned racecar designer forced into retirement by a heart condition exacerbated by the difficulties of his high-speed sport of choice. His narrative importance lies in being the connective tissue between Ken Miles (Christian Bale as his close friend and colleague) and Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts as a man who needs no introduction) once the titular war at Le Mans gets underway. His unique expertise at crafting a competitive car to Enzo Ferrari’s unparalleled champions while also holding the distinction of being the only American to ever win the aforementioned European race renders him historically crucial too. Ford craves victory, Miles the driver’s seat. Shelby hopes to provide both.
Screenwriters Jason Keller and Jez and John-Henry Butterworth do well to present this hierarchy by introducing their period sports drama with voiceover sentiments from Shelby. He speaks about the sense of magic felt at 7,000 rpms when it’s almost like the car is floating above the ground, its driver suspended in mid-air. We see the rush of adrenaline as he whips around curves in France, the pressure causing him to hear his doctor’s voice and jog him awake from a dream turned nightmare. This is how we know Shelby exists with a foot in both worlds: Ford’s paper-pushing bureaucracy of fancy suits, legalese, and practical truths as well as Ken’s brashly confident blue collar slice of Americana where everything is put on the line without a safety net.
He needs to balance these realms like a tightrope walker, understanding that the financial backing to do what needs to be done comes at the cost of placating those writing the checks. So even though his entire game plan to help Ford settle a petty grudge match between millionaires hinges on Ken sitting behind the wheel, seeing what might happen with or without him is ultimately more important. It’s the risk he takes trusting Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal)—his one true champion amongst the Ford executive branch—despite knowing the guy above him on the food chain (Josh Lucas‘ Leo Beebe) has “The Deuce’s” ear. But who knows? Maybe losing without Ken will show Ford that Shelby was right all along. Or maybe it’ll get him fired anyway.
This is the powder keg Carroll and his team (including Ray McKinnon‘s Phil) sits upon from the moment Iacocca walks into his factory. How much brazen assertiveness is enough to get Ford’s ear (a question Lee must also ask himself before getting this whole ball rolling with an idea to boost sales by turning the Ford name into an international race icon) without putting Shelby’s own head on the chopping block? How much leash can he give Miles before either alienating him from the whole exercise or ensuring his detractors do everything in their power to take his name off the list? Ford and Ferrari take credit even though their vehicles are the products of their engineers. They treat their drivers like machine cogs rather than intangible linchpins.
Mangold deftly shows the myriad ways in which everyone tries putting Ken in a box. Whether it’s Beebe dictating what’s possible under the company’s homogenized brand or Shelby constantly fighting to retain the control he’s told he has, Miles will always do whatever he feels like doing. Maybe it will prove he has an edge over the field or perhaps finally give his vocal opponents the excuse they’ve sought to throw him out once and for all. At least he knows he’ll always have the support of his loving wife (Caitriona Balfe in a role that futilely tries to be more than that label) and idolatry of his adoring son (Noah Jupe relegated to a similar fate by being here to witness the drama’s extreme highs and lows).
Ken is the story’s hero—the untamed wildcard whose absence is forever felt even as his presence is consistently undervalued. We need Carroll to be the driving force propelling the narrative underneath Ford’s catalyst, but no one is more interesting or entertaining than Miles. And it’s great to see Bale excel in that space with some brilliant comedic flair to go with his trademarked brooding temperament. It’s easy to see why a guy like Beebe would despise him just as its obvious why Shelby loves him enough to never give up. Le Mans might be the climax everything is working towards, but it’s somehow simple when compared to the smaller unpredictable battles fought along the way. He’s the best driver and the biggest underdog at once.
So he’s the champion we rally around and the goofy saboteur who can’t stop himself from acting before he thinks. Only when Ken is in a car does he let things slow down to measure cause and effect. That’s where his temper is held in check by an almost incongruous sense of sportsmanship while he watches and comments on the underhanded efforts of the others driving alongside him. He’s a mirror to Shelby with Damon finding that delicate balance between the fire burning within and the desire to do something big even if means dousing those flames. He’s reckless behind the wheel in no small part because he’s not allowed to be there and a charismatic mediator all too willing to play the game when away from it.
There’s a lot for audiences to enjoy as a result since Bale and Damon’s rapport provides humorous hijinks to counter their often-explosive nature when pitted against the cutthroat suits smug in the belief they’re pulling their strings. Mangold shoots the races with speed and drama to create suspense even if we can already know the outcome because this race is about Ken and Carroll showing each other they aren’t done yet more than beating Ferrari or proving Ford’s cronies wrong. Their dreams aren’t beholden to outside gatekeepers forcing them in lockstep when they know everything transpiring is their doing. This is their opportunity for glory. Play your cards right and take control when the moment is right because just getting to France will take a perfect lap.
 Christian Bale and Matt Damon in Twentieth Century Fox’s FORD V FERRARI. Photo Credit: Merrick Morton TM and © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. Not for sale or duplication.
 Tracy Letts and Josh Lucas in Twentieth Century Fox’s FORD V FERRARI. Photo Credit: Merrick Morton TM and © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. Not for sale or duplication.
 Christian Bale and Noah Jupe in Twentieth Century Fox’s FORD V FERRARI. Photo Credit: Merrick Morton TM and © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. Not for sale or duplication.