Christian Bale, at his most angular and hard-bodied, seems born for the role. You fancy he found something very familiar about Miles. While his stubbornness can be supremely annoying, his faith in himself is justified by his dedication to getting things right. To him, cars and their engines are something more than instruments to be tuned to perform at their best. When he gets behind the wheel, he could be slipping into a second skin. He can sense the precise nature of the car’s relationship with earth and air. And he can pinpoint the most efficient way of adapting it to reach a perfect balance.
But he has a forthright contempt for men in suits, and a hot temper. Fortunately, he also has Shelby, a former chicken farmer who turned himself into a champion racing driver before a heart condition forced him off the track. As well as knowing as much about cars as Miles does, he has enough tact and guile to hold his own in any corporate brawl.
The two begin to tangle with big business in 1966 after Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) and his chief lieutenants, Lee Iacocca (John Bernthal) and Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), make Shelby an offer. They want him to design a racer that will win the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a brutal contest long dominated by Ferrari.
Iacocca has persuaded the others that Ford can revive its fortunes by throwing off its reputation for stodginess and attracting younger customers. As winner of Le Mans, he reasons, the company will acquire a glamour that will cast a reflected glow on its commercial models.
Mangold has firmly fixed the film in its time. It’s not a matter of lengthening sideburns, raising skirts and planting hippies among the extras. Its more subliminal. The cinematography has a rough texture that speaks of time’s passing. The cars may be shiny but there’s no gloss in the rest of the décor.
His crew re-created the Ford’s Michigan plant in an old steel factory in Los Angeles, going so far as to buy a fleet of 1960s Ford Falcons on eBay and Craigslist to stock the assembly line, and the racing sequences, shot with an array of rigs, platforms and camera cars, are breathtaking.
But some of the most absorbing action takes place off the track as the film’s cast of insatiable egos goes to war. The most withering put-down comes from Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) after he rejects a merger offer from Ford with a torrent of invective directed at the company’s “big ugly factories and ugly little cars”. Then comes the coup de grace. Ford, he says, is not Henry Ford. “He’s Henry Ford the Second.”
Damon anchors the whole thing with his Everyman looks and adaptable amiability. He’s the most unlikely Hollywood star but perhaps that’s where his secret lies. In this case, he keeps us with him because his is the sanity of a character who never loses sight of the big picture.