Start your engines.
The title of this thrilling film by James Mangold may sound like it’s a story of American ingenuity versus Italian craftsmanship, but the happiest surprise of this very fun ride is that the movie is about the struggle of the artists against the suits. In this case, the artists are the legendary driver and car builder Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and British driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) who team up to build and drive the fastest American race car. They end up working for the Ford Motor Company, which wants to try to win a race at Le Mans, in order to beat a sales slump. Ford executive Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) convinces Henry Ford II (the fabulous Tracy Letts) to try to build a Ford to beat the six-time champion Ferrari at the 24 hours at Le Mans.
The biggest nemesis in the movie is John Beebe, the head of marketing at Ford (Josh Lucas, relishing the opportunity to play the meanie, bad hair included). Marketing is about surface and optics, and it dehumanizes people. And so Beebe doesn’t like that Miles looks like a schlub. He doesn’t care about his talent, or his courage, all he cares is that he doesn’t represent the brand, and he is willing to die on that hill even as Miles amply demonstrates he is the only guy for the job. Meanwhile we see the toll it takes on everyone to try to be as fast possible.
Damon and Bale are both spectacular and have genuine chemistry together. Damon’s acting is precise and unobtrusive. Bale inhabits the role of the eccentric Miles with his usual fierceness but brings charm and sweetness to the role. The racing scenes are shot up close and the sound of the engines and brakes is high so the audience can get close to vicariously understanding what it feels like drive a little car at over 200 miles per hour. Watching the cars zip by reminded me why I used to like to pick up speed on the highway. It’s a great feeling even at 90 miles an hour. Also, very dangerous.
Even though some of the writing by the Butterworth brothers and Mangold is a bit trite, the movie is gorgeously made, the race scenes are thrilling, and the entire cast rises above the din of the engines with verve. I am not a guy, I don’t care about cars, and I had a blast.