Almost two decades ago, a little Dreamcast racing game called Test Drive: Le Mans briefly took over my life. Le Mans was foundational for me, solidifying my tastes as a racing game fan. It was one of the first attempts—as far as I’m aware—to find a middle ground between arcade fun and intense simulation. That balance was something that carried through to all my favorite racing games—gems like Project Gotham Racing, Blur, and Forza Horizon.
It also offered something truly wild: a legit 24 hour-long race around the infamous Le Mans course.
You could save your progress at each pit stop, which let you take breaks. But like an ink ribbon save in Resident Evil, it was something you had to do strategically. Pit too early and you’ll lose pace with the other racers who pit less often. Pit too late, and you’ll run out of gas or lose too much traction to race effectively.
It was harrowing. At least, for the first few hours.
Because of the way I set up the race initially, I lapped the second place AI opponent so many times by hour 18 or so that I called it a win and quit out. Anticlimactic, but it’s still an experience I’ll never forget, with a track design that’s etched into my mind.
Jump ahead in time, to a movie theater trip a few days ago, and I’m watching Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) crest over a familiar hill and accelerate down an unforgettable straightaway. The battlefield of Ford v Ferrari is the 24 hour Le Mans. The same race I experienced in game form so many years ago.
Ford v Ferrari tells the story of Ford’s attempt to freshen up its brand in the 60s. It’s a marketing move, something conjuring up in a boardroom to sell more cars. The plan? Buy out Ferrari, and if that doesn’t work, beat them at their own game—by winning a race they have dominated for years.
The whole thing veers dangerously close to a 152 minute car commercial in the early goings. A frustrated Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) shuts down the assembly line, demanding a spark of marketing genius. Enzo Ferrari himself turns his nose at the Ford suits who offer to buy his company. The feud hints toward a vapid, “oo-rah, America is the best” story, as the Italian car manufacturer becomes the enemy and the car montages kick into full gear.
Thankfully, Ford v Ferrari quickly becomes more complicated than that. The conflict is less about Ford versus Ferrari, and more about Shelby and his team (including star racer Ken Miles, played by Christian Bale) versus an army of marketing minions at Ford. Far from a car commercial, this film is more about how greed, corporate bureaucracy, and capitalism itself will poison the well, tarnish a vision, and generally try to ruin any great achievement.
It’s this angle that keeps the plot nimble, even when it’s playing around in well-worn “sports movie” tropes. The question of “will he win the race?” becomes “will he even be allowed to finish the race amongst all this red tape?”
And while the plot kept me guessing, it’s the pace, the cinematography, and the action that steals the show. Hands down, Ford v Ferrari was the most thrilling car film I’ve seen since Mad Max: Fury Road. It helped that I saw it in a Dolby theater, where the roar of the car engines was literally shaking the seats, but that bonus bit of immersion was nothing compared to the sense of speed and danger that director James Mangold (Logan) put on display.
I saw one of those critics’ quotes in a commercial recently that said something like “it does all the things that you want a film to do.” Which sounds like the most bullshit, half-hearted praise you could give something. But, I think I understand the point that critic was trying to make. Ford v Ferrari is thrilling and action-packed, but it also spends a fair bit of time building up its cast of characters and making you care about them. Not only that, but there’s a larger critique of corporate America underneath it all. It’s got a bit of everything going on, and it’s wildly entertaining to boot.
I left the theater in one of those great-film hazes. You know the ones where you’re not quite back in reality yet? I may have been a little heavy on the accelerator driving home, and I definitely plan on dusting off that old copy of Test Drive: Le Mans and taking it for a spin around the track.