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Ford v Ferrari gets the heart racing.

The American Job

Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon, left) and Ken Miles (Christian Bale)
Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon, left) and Ken Miles (Christian Bale)

Think of Ford v Ferrari as The Right Stuff for gearheads. It’s a terrific true story about a couple guys going out there and doing something crazy. It’s exhilarating and it’s a much-needed respite from the banality of today’s safety-conscious, sterile world of self-driving cars and airbags.

In this case, those guys are Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon, The Martian) and Ken Miles (Christian Bale, The Mechanic). Shelby’s a recognizable name in the world of sports cars. He’s the guy behind the Shelby Cobra, a true muscle car. Hot stuff. Ken Miles? Maybe his name’s not as recognizable, but he made a huge impact on the history of racing. And he made the ultimate sacrifice a couple times over.

Together, Shelby and Miles did the unthinkable back in 1966. Hired by Henry Ford II, they took on Enzo Ferrari and the grueling, insane 24 hours of Le Mans.

Watch this one and savor the thrill of man melding with machine, a symbiosis that predates Terminator and all the gloom and doom of robots taking over the world. This is a trip back to the glory days of invention, ingenuity, grit, getting hands dirty and putting life on the line in the name of breaking land-speed records. And the undeniable, superior power of the manual shift is right where it belongs: back in the spotlight and central to the motoring experience.

7,000 RPM

This is Bale’s follow-up to Vice, in which he gained 45 pounds for his portrayal of Vice President Dick Cheney. To become Ken Miles, Bale had to turn around and drop more than 70 pounds. The guy is all-in like no other actor working today. Blowing past the physical demands, though, Bale nails the emotional weight carried by each of his characters. And it’s every bit as true here.

In this case, Miles is a dedicated family man, a World War II veteran who’s set up a garage in California, but he’s struggling to make a living. He’s a well-known talent, the problem is he’s also an acquired taste. Outspoken and a smidge egotistical, he tells like it is. That — very often — doesn’t go over well.

Here, Caroll Shelby comes across as surprisingly calm, cool and collected — at least compared to the aggressiveness of Ken Miles. Together, they serve as a yin and a yang, they balance each other and form a pair that’s easy to bond with, crossing the divide from the screen to the audience.

But, of course, there are challenges. Standing up a world-class racing team doesn’t happen overnight, even if a corporate powerhouse like Ford Motor Co. demands it be stood up within 90 days. The (again, outspoken) Miles pegs it as a feat requiring hundreds of years — at least for a place like Ford.

This is pre-moonshot America. There’s an optimism afoot; there’s an up-and-coming class of post-war youth interested in driving something new — they want a sexy motoring experience, not their father’s Oldsmobile. They also most certainly don’t want to do something zany, like share a ride. This is, in retrospect, a heyday of automobile ownership — albeit, Ford was enduring its worst sales slump on record under the leadership of Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal, Baby Driver). History buffs will recall, while Iacocca (who passed away in July) launched the Ford Mustang in the ’60s, he also went on to lead the turnaround of Chrysler in the ’80s.

I’m H-A-P-P-Y

Without guys like Shelby and Miles (and John Cooper and Preston Tucker), it’s hard to imagine a world in which Elon Musk becomes the man he is and, by extension, the same can be said of other modern corporate adventurers like Richard Branson.

There’s a twist — the kind of twist that’s so infuriating it can’t possibly be true. Surely it has to be the fabrication of Hollywood, a spin made for a purely manufactured emotional turning point — something to shame corporate hubris. Or can it? This turn of events is the kind of short-sighted vanity that puts the priority on a photo opp instead of the completion of groundbreaking, history-making — record -breaking — performance excellence. The shame of it is it really did go down that way. Miles being denied first place at Le Mans (and, by extension, the automotive Triple Crown of Daytona, Sebring and Le Mans) was his first give-all sacrifice.


Only two months later, Miles would make his second sacrifice.

It’s a true story. Frustrating and exhilarating; disappointing and inspirational. Miles’ efforts are being placed in the spoiler zone; to not divulge the details in advance is to ensure the emotional integrity of what director James Mangold, reteaming with Bale from 3:10 to Yuma, has in store. Going home and appreciating the factual basis for the events puts things in an even more powerful perspective.

There is a science to what Shelby and Miles accomplished. In Ford v Ferrari, they talk about the sensation of weightlessness, of transcending space and time. It’s a variant of what Chuck Yeager experienced two decades earlier as he broke the sound barrier while piloting the X-1.

Much the same, these guys chose instinct and tactile, first-hand impressions over computers. Rather than being weighed down by a bulky, ghastly machine in the passenger seat, Shelby and Miles instead chose to rip it out. Tape and rope adorned across the car’s body provided a more meaningful illustration of what was going on in terms of drag, aerodynamics and efficiencies.

It’s good old-fashioned Yankee “enginuity,” albeit in California — with a Texan and a Brit.