Film review: Ford v Ferrari gets Le Mans right

In 1971, Steve McQueen made one of the most impressive racing movies in history: Le Mans. Taking place at the famed French street course, the movie chronicles a fake version of the 24-hour race. The reason it is regarded as such a great racing movie is because of the on-track action—it’s all real. The racing, the speed, the crashes—they all happen in real life without computers, and most of the time with Mr. McQueen behind the wheel. Now, the plot of this movie, outside of the racing, is dreadfully dull. Really, the only people who appreciate this film are those who appreciate the racing from that era. The casual movie-goer does not understand the risk and peril the drivers put themselves through, and they’ll fall asleep through the B-story. 

     Ford v. Ferrari is not like “Le Mans.” It is miles better. 

     Where highbrow fans of Le Mans and other strictly racing movies like Grand Prix might look down on lovers of Talladega Nights and Days of Thunder, everyone can love Matt Damon and Christian Bale’s latest picture. It has real racing scenes and crashes like those from Steve McQueen along with  a significant subplot following driver Ken Miles’ life. You don’t have to know going into the movie who Phill Hill and Bob Bonderant are or how fast a ’60s racecar can go through the Mulsanne Kink. The casual viewer can thoroughly enjoy this film and learn a bit about racing. 

     But I am not a casual viewer when it comes to racing movies, and more than anything in this film, I looked for historical accuracy. Did the tracks on set follow the same turns in real life? Were the cars’ color schemes and specifications correct for the year? Did Matt Damon do a good job of portraying Mr. Shelby?

     In short, yes. Sure the Daytona 24-hour race scenes were actually filmed at Fontana and did’n’t follow the Florida road course at all, but the cars looked the part and the actors, particularly Mr. Damon, were very true to life. I thought the racing and driving was filmed in such a way that it gave the viewer a sense of speed, something that not always happens in car movies. 

     The shots of the opening SCCA race at Willow Springs, a fast, sweeping racetrack in California, showed the viewer how dangerous driving was back then, and the speed and skill of Ken Miles. It gave me chills hearing the announcer of the race call out “Dan Gurney” and “Phill Hill” over the loudspeaker as they swapped paint. If anything, this movie made me wish racing were still like this: less fragile cars with more beating and banging between drivers. 

     Even the Le Mans track, memorized by any true racing fan, was accurate. I was especially impressed with the production’s ability to replicate the Indianapolis-Arnage section, a difficult left-right set of corners about two-thirds of the way through the lap. The front stretch looked like Le Mans in the ’60s with concrete bleachers for the fans and narrow hallways behind the garages for the pit crews. What is most impressive is that a lot of those front stretch scenes were filmed on a set at Willow Springs. So props to the, uh, prop designers. 

     And the characters were dynamic too. The script was witty and dramatic, including many Shelby colloquialisms and Ford Motor Company traits that were true to character. I thought Tracy Letts did a great job playing Henry Ford II. Basically, he had to be a tough, fat, no-nonsense suit that was ignorant of the true capabilities of his creation. But when he finally got in the GT with Shelby and felt the speed and power of the car, he showed humility and love for the machine and company: a dramatic change in personality from the rest of the film. 

     But it is the plot that brings this story to life and allows for the unfamiliar viewer to leave the theater wanting to know more about 1960s endurance racing. Sometimes, Hollywood doesn’t have to work very hard. Sometimes, the world provides the perfect story and all the directors have to do is follow history. Ford vs. Ferrari is one of these stories. 

     In 1959, Carroll Shelby, legendary race car driver and designer, piloted his Aston Martin DBR1 to victory lane at Le Mans. However, due to his heart condition, this was the last time Shelby would cross the finish line behind the wheel at the famed event. Shelby was always a bit of a dare-devil, pushing the limits of his abilities and his creations. He stuck a big Ford V8 in his own AC Bristol and created one of the greatest sports cars in history, the Shelby Cobra. To this day, the Shelby name is a symbol of ultimate speed, reserved for only the highest performance creations from Dearborn.

     After he won at Le Mans, Shelby’s doctors said his heart would stop if he kept pushing it behind the wheel, so he turned to expanding his brand and building a race team. His Cobras competed in SCCA, USAC, and other sports car racing series in the ’60s. His favorite driver and mechanic buddy was Ken Miles, a hothead who knew everything inside and out about his vehicle, and was very vocal when something went wrong. Many people called him “difficult,” but he and Shelby were very successful together in their racing endeavors.  

     While all this was going on, “Il Commendatore,” or Enzo Ferrari, was dominating the sports car circuit in Europe, particularly at Le Mans. His sleek machines won every year from 1960 to 1965, making them the bar for all competing manufacturers to meet. It was a high, fast, beautiful bar. 

     Back in the States, times were changing. The boomer generation was starting to get their licenses, and they wanted something with a little more sex appeal than what Ford currently offered. Lee Iaccoca, one of the most innovative American automotive executives in history (maker of the Mustang), explained to Mr. Ford that while Ferrari might build fewer cars, their success in racing will put them ahead of Ford in history. Mr. Iaccoca concluded that in order for Ford to be remembered at the best car manufacturer ever, they must win at Le Mans. 

     Now, Ferrari was in money trouble. Winning does not come cheap, and Ford was prepared to offer to buy Ferrari SpA if it meant owning their race team. Mr. Ford sent his executives to Maranello to speak with the Boss. Enzo, in a most humiliating and insulting manner, said no and instead allowed FIAT to purchase the brand. Mr. Ford did not see the famous purple-inked signature on his contract when his employees returned. 

     This infuriated Ford. Suddenly, beating Ferrari became personal. And so, Ford hired Carroll Shelby to do the ultimate task: build a racecar in half a year to compete at Le Mans and beat Ferrari. Shelby brought his best man Ken Miles to do the job with them, and together, they put a car on the start line: the Ford GT40. Miles thought he would pilot the inaugural GT at the race. After all, he knew the car better than anyone. But Ford executives wanted their people, and Miles didn’t fit the bill. None of the Ford entrants that year finished the race. Had the drivers and teams possessed Miles’ knowhow and feel for the cars, that outcome might have been different.

     And so in 1966, Ford went back to Shelby and asked him to build another car. Shelby complied with Mr. Ford’s command, but only if Miles would be a driver. Ford agreed, but he had his own caveat: Miles had to win the 24 Hours of Daytona. Other Ford executives who didn’t like Miles wanted him to lose—in the movie, executive Leo Beebe plays Miles’ frustrating antagonist—so they set up a special strategy for all GTs competing that day to ensure Miles wouldn’t win. But Miles wanted that Le Mans ride and so did his crew chief Shelby, so they disobeyed team Ford orders and ended up winning the race. Afterward securing their spot on the French start line, they tweaked the car and made it faster, found other drivers like Bruce McLaren to drive the other Fords, and went off to Le Mans. 

     On that weekend in 1966, Scuderia Ferrari brought the best they had: the beautiful P4. But what Ford lacked in looks, they made up for in speed. On that day in June, Miles would set the lap record multiple times, blasting down the 3.5-mile Mulsanne straight at speeds higher than ever seen at the track. Ford was also more reliable than the Ferrari, with the Italian V12 eventually blowing up, securing Miles a victory. Or so he thought.

     The executives at the race deemed a picture of the cars three-abreast crossing the line would be the most fitting way to solidify themselves in the history books. Miles eventually agreed to slow down and cross the line with his teammates, but Bruce McLaren’s car actually won the race by a technicality. It was a bummer for Miles, but he was always one to look forward, and he and Shelby went back to developing for next year. Sadly, Miles died in a testing accident, but the Ford GT40 would go on to win Le Mans the next three years. 

     This movie pulls at the emotions of car fans everywhere. There’s a theme of “7000 RPM” being the point at which a car becomes alive, and it is also the limit team Ford tells Miles not to break in the GT40. While 7000 RPM may be inaccurate, it is true that at a certain speed, the driver and car behave together. It happens after they get to know each other, after they’ve spent a long time together. Ken Miles achieves this car nirvana towards the end of the race while he’s in the lead with no one around him. The car is going 220 miles an hour down the Mulsanne Straight, and he appreciates the machine that surrounds him. It might be hard for a non-car person to understand, but what Ken felt at this moment, especially at a holy place like Le Mans, is true for every driver out there. 

     I’ll probably see this movie many more times in my life—it really is everything a car guy could want. Not only does it introduce racing and an important part of racing history to the casual viewer, but it also provides the avid follower, the lover of the automotive world, a place to point and say, “this, this right here, is why I love racing.”