It’s a thrill ride and you don’t have to be a racing fan to be enthralled by it. The film has a lot of racing and car performance activity, but it is really a story of achievement revolving around the two main characters.
Starting Matt Damon as Carroll Shelby and Christian Bale as Ken Miles, these two build and race an automobile to beat the world’s top racing teams. The supporting cast is top-notch in their own right. You feel the actors are high performance engines, well-calibrated and never meeting a beat. Josh Lucas, Tracy Letts, JJ Feild, Caitríona Balfe, Jon Bernthal and others make up the fine supporting cast.
Directed by James Mangold (Copland, The Wolverine, Walk the Line), the film has a lot of very exciting action sequences, but it never seems like you are being fed unrealistic CGI or contrived editing work. This film felt very old fashioned in terms of style and with the focus on characterization driving the story. Mangold isn’t afraid to slow the pace and to let the story breathe. The characters fill in the white space with very full performances. Period films are notorious for soundtracks jammed with songs from the era, to the point of being a cliche. This film avoids it. The music feels of the era, but sits comfortably in the background, almost unnoticed. I applaud Mangold for not falling into the commercial trap and avoiding a soundtrack filled with Beach Boy car songs or whiplash editing techniques. The film has a more authentic, nature feel, and that’s great.
The story is about the alliance of two men, Shelby and Miles, to achieve what neither can do independently. Besides trying to master the technical challenges of a car to rival the Ferrari, Shelby struggles to gain the independence in the Ford universe free from interference, and Miles is searching for a chance to earn a living at what he was put on the Earth to do.
Damon delivers his usual quality performance, he is the most normal guy in the story and we gravitate towards him. He’s a huge risk-taker in life and he represents the spirit of relentless sweat and sacrifice that powered innovation. American industry, in the form of Ford, has gotten fat and happy, and is sliding into mediocrity. Even with the introduction of the Mustang, Ford is not taken seriously in the world of auto racing. Shelby is a maverick and Damon fits comfortably in the role. You know what you are getting with Damon, he’s the Kevin Costner of his time.
Bales is terrific as Ken Miles. He is the most dynamic actor working today. He becomes the character, like Robert De Niro. Behind Bales’ eyes, you can wonder what all is going on, his character is very internal. Miles is a very competitive guy and he has a temper, but mostly we feel it just below his surface. That is the mastery of Bales, his intensity is just lower than a boil, but we know he is emotional churning.
If the film has weaknesses, the film is long, and a bit slow, particularly in the beginning. With a run-time of over 150 minutes, there is probably some fat, but it honestly did not feel long. The other complaint I have concerns the non-development of several supporting and key characters. Lee Iacocca has a strong lead-in to the story and then almost disappears from the narrative, let to occupy the background, literally. Ford executive Leo Beebee lacks any backstory to understand why he’s such a dick. If there is a villain in the film, it’s him, he’s the nemesis of Shelby, and has no desire for Miles to be the face of the racing team. In real life, there was tension between Shelby and Beebee, but not to the degree presented in the film. Henry Ford II is portrayed as a vain and arrogant man, which he no doubt was, but for as much screen time as he gets, he’s just a two-dimensional character.
How accurate is the film? I found a Slate article that compare the real life people and the movie characters, along with events portrayed in the film. I’ve seen a lot of “films based on real events” or “inspired by real events” film and most take liberties with fact, some more than others. Usually, the excuse for changes are for “dramatization” which means to cut the boring parts and create threads to link the other facts and to be more entertaining.
This film won’t break any box office records but it is a film that will live on through streaming and other media. Films with good stories, strong characters and capably directed will always find an audience.
If you want to see the film in a theater, you better race on over, it won’t stay around long.