There’s a point at 7,000 RPMs where everything fades. The machine becomes weightless. It disappears. All that’s left, a body moving through space, and time. At 7,000 RPM, that’s where you meet it. That’s where it waits for you.” -- Carol Shelby, Ford v Ferrari
You don’t have to know what RPMs are. You don’t have to know who Carroll Shelby was. Or Ken Miles. Or Lee Iacocca or Enzo Ferrari or the Ford GT40. You don’t have to know anything about the story that is Ford v Ferrari to understand and enjoy it.
On the other hand, if you do know it -- if you know every detail and slight and underlying motivation of the real drama of the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans -- you’ll have questions and criticisms. For the uninitiated, racing is the backdrop for the human drama of the film. For the initiated, the human drama becomes the backdrop for the racing, and the racing in Ford v Ferrari occasionally isn’t accurate, nor are some of the facts behind the human drama. That bothers the purists, but it doesn’t diminish the effort.
It is, quite plainly put, among the best racing films ever produced. It is also, quite plainly put, highly questionable at times. Some of the racing scenes are wildly unbelievable. Not Days of Thunder or Driven unbelievable, but difficult to accept nonetheless. Imagine two drivers staring at each other as they top 200 mph down the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans. Imagine a car exploding like a bomb and the driver crawling out several seconds later with hardly a burn.
But it’s the portrayal of Ford motorsports manager Leo Beebe as the film’s villain that’s most problematic, because there doesn’t seem to be any real-life indication he wanted Miles out of the car, or that there was any feuding between Shelby and the Ford “suits” during the race.
“Not a single reviewer I’m aware of has challenged the depiction of Beebe,” wrote veteran motorsports author Art Garner. “Most, even automotive and racing reporters, say they never heard of him. A number have referred to him as (horror of horrors), a PR guy! I hope one or two do a little research on the subject because the hatchet job on Beebe is unacceptable and makes the movie, for me, unbearable.”
Senna, the 2010 film by Asif Kapadia, remains a better racing movie, but it’s also a straight documentary; James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari is a drama based on historic events. It stays fairly close to the story, but takes noted liberties with the facts. In that sense, it’s different than two other Le Mans films, 1966’s Grand Prix starring James Garner and 1971’s Le Mans starring Steve McQueen.
And, as one would expect, the film has multiple connections to INDYCAR. Christian Bale and Matt Damon visited Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May to wave the green flag for the Indianapolis 500. Damon, who plays Shelby in the film, rode in the two-seater with Mario Andretti. Bale, who portrays Miles, didn’t. “No, mate, not doing it,” he told Sports Illustrated’s Mark Bechtel. “I just can’t put my life in someone else’s hands, no matter how brilliant they are.”
Ford v Ferrari is brilliant. It also isn’t a documentary, and that’s where racing nerds get nerdy and notice discrepancies in the background of action scenes and find fault with the dramatization of the history. License was taken with the story for dramatic effect. That’s where people who are truly into racing -- and truly into the ‘66 Le Mans story -- get irritated.
But there’s no questioning the quality of the work. Mangold pieces together a moving story based on facts but not always beholden to them. If you’re a motorhead, suspend disbelief. See it at an IMAX Theater. It’s a big, loud movie that needs to be seen in a big, loud theater. Marvel in the work of Damon and Bale. Both are worthy of Oscar nominations. It’s a fine film, especially if you don’t pick apart the minutiae.
Racing rarely gets a Seabiscuit. It doesn’t get many films at all, let alone films this good. Remember that racing is the backdrop, not the star. Let the little things go and enjoy it. It’s worthy of our time. It's worthy of our respect.