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‘Ford v Ferrari’ a rip-roaring flashback to ’60s motorsports

Christian Bale and Matt Damon have great rapport as gear heads working toward an underdog victor at Le Mans.

Christian Bale (left) and Matt Damon in “Ford v. Ferrari.”
20th Century Fox

Ford Motor Co. executive Lee Iacocca has just returned from a meeting with Enzo Ferrari, in which the Italian automobile legend turned down Ford’s offer to buy his company.

“What did he say?” asks the stoic Henry Ford II.

“He said Ford makes ugly little cars in ugly factories,” says Iacocca. “And, um, he called you fat, sir.”

Ford smiles the chilliest small smile you’ve ever seen in your life.

Ford v Ferrari. It’s on.

Jon Bernthal plays Iacocca and Tracy Letts is Henry Ford II in “Ford v Ferrari.” And while they’re not the leads in James Mangold’s rip-roaring and heart-pounding 1960s action/drama (you might have seen a couple of guys named Bale and Damon on the poster and promoting the film in interviews), they’re key members of the one of the best ensemble casts of the year, in one of the best movies ever made about auto racing.

We know there’s green-screen wizardry and CGI magic and stunt-driver action incorporated into his retelling of Ford’s stunning victories over the seemingly unbeatable Ferrari teams at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, but the technology is seamless and there are times when you’ll swear you’re right there in the mid-1960s, cheering for the Rocky of race cars to upset the unbeatable Apollo Creed.

Matt Damon and Christian Bale are the “bromantical” leads in “Ford v. Ferrari,” though neither plays a Ford nor a Ferrari.

Damon is all square-jawed sincerity and cowboy-hat straightforwardness as Carroll Shelby, an American driver turned automotive designer who is put in charge of building the right car and assembling the perfect racing team to take on Ferrari at Le Mans.

Bale is the mercurial, uncompromising, hot-headed British driver Ken Miles, who is seemingly past his prime and has been deemed nearly impossible to work with when Carroll offers him the opportunity to be Ford’s lead driver, much to the concern of the company’s marketing executives, as well as Ford himself.

Damon and Bale have a relaxed, confident, sometimes very funny chemistry in their scenes together, whether Ken is scoffing at Carroll’s ridiculously short timeline to put together a car worthy of contending at Le Mans, or the two men get into a suburban street corner scuffle when long-simmering resentments come to a boil.

It’s hardly Batman v Jason Bourne when these two guys fight. They wrestle about like a couple of embarrassing Little League dads, and Ken’s wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) unfolds a chair and takes a front-lawn seat to observe these two egomaniacs working out their differences before they run out of breath.

The scene is perfectly executed. Yeah, these guys can get on each other’s last nerves, but they’re part of a very select fraternity of top-level drivers who understand and have great passion for their sport, and the unequaled thrill of hitting 7,000 RPMS, at which point the world around you disappears and you become one with the machine.

Caitriona Balfe plays Mollie Miles, the supportive wife of driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) in “Ford v Ferrari.”
20th Century Fox

Veteran Italian actor Remo Girone is magnificently regal and cocky as Enzo Ferrari, who chuckles at how ordinary the Ford team cars look side by side with the sleek and beautiful Ferraris, and scoffs at the clunky ways of the brazen Americans who actually thought he’d sell them his company. He’s a suitably dashing and arrogant antagonist.

But much of “Ford v Ferrari” is really about “Ford v Ford,” i.e., the corporate brass and the P.R. team butting heads with Carroll and Ken. There’s also quite a bit of “Carroll v Ken,” not to mention “Ken v Ken,” as Miles is often his own worst enemy.

Caitriona Balfe is wonderful as Mollie Miles, who in real life was something of a gear head herself and isn’t one of those movie wives whose main function is to keep asking her husband to give up his dangerous job. (Mollie tells Ken she knows the risks, and she knows he’s going to take those risks. She only asks he doesn’t lie to her and pretend he doesn’t love the job.)

Director Mangold and the screenwriting team also sprinkle in just enough quieter interludes to allow us to catch our breaths between racing sequences. Ken lets down his defenses and shows a much quieter, tender side when he’s spending time with his adoring son Peter (Noah Jupe), patiently explaining the elements of the perfect lap of driving.

“Ford v. Ferrari” expertly captures the essence of mid-20th century racing, and the spirit of the men who went to battle in Le Mans.

This image released by 20th Century fox shows Tracy Letts in a scene from “Ford v. Ferrari,” in theaters on Nov. 15. (Merrick Morton/20th Century Fox via AP) ORG XMIT: NYET155
Tracy Letts plays Henry Ford II in “Ford v Ferrari.”
20th Century Fox