The title of Ford v Ferrari promises a satisfyingly simple us-against-them narrative. In the red corner, the stylish and snooty designers at Ferrari, casually sipping espressos as the venerated Italian carmaker cruises to victory year after year in the 24 Hours of Le Mans race. In the blue corner, the gritty heroes at Ford, combining American ingenuity and elbow grease to build an underdog auto that can win it all. Yet James Mangold’s new biographical film about the two companies’ fabled 1966 face-off is an epic that avoids such stereotyping. Ford v Ferrari takes the straightforward ethos of car racing—where the winner is whoever is the fastest—and lays bare the egotism and greed required for such a triumph.
It’s also a breezy, throwback-style moviegoing experience: a robust and often funny drama about grown-ups, with nary a superhero costume in sight. Mangold has spent most of this cinematic decade in a comic-book world, delivering two movies about an X-Men character (The Wolverine and Logan) that managed to be memorable and inventive. Still, the realism of Ford v Ferrari is a welcome relief for a talented filmmaker with more than a little Old Hollywood in him; Mangold can’t help but give his films, no matter what their ostensible genre, the swagger of a dark ’50s Western. His police-corruption drama, Cop Land (1997); the teen memoir Girl, Interrupted (1999); and his Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line (2005), all feature characters brimming with bravado and self-doubt, trying to carve out lives in a hostile world. With its precise production design and rumbling racing scenes, Ford v Ferrari is as sleek and visually alluring as the vintage vehicles it showcases—but beneath its shiny hood is an engine with real complexity.