Ford v Ferrari has all the key ingredients for an awards-season crowd-pleaser: two great actors (Matt Damon and Christian Bale) sharing top billing, a true story that many folks are probably not aware of, and an adrenaline rush that carries the film to the finish line. It’s a classic sports underdog story about two racing legends, Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles, who helped the Ford Motor Company build and race a car that could hold its own against Italian racing icon Enzo Ferrari’s team at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans Race in France. More importantly, it’s about the friendship between the two men, so you don’t have to be a motorsports fan to get on board.

I saw an early screening of Ford v Ferrari at the Middleburg Film Festival, and it immediately zoomed into contention for a top spot on my year-end list of faves. Damon and Bale have terrific chemistry, and it’s fun to see two Academy Award winners play off each other and not against each other. Bale’s British-born character is quite likeable, even when he’s being a hot head. And Damon exudes his typical boyish charm – and a practiced Texas twang – as Shelby. The guys get into a few scrapes (“boys will be boys” stuff, as noted by Miles’ wife Mollie, played by Caitriona Balfe), but they always have each others’ backs and a clear mutual respect on and off the track.

As the (true) story goes, Carroll Shelby (Damon) was a successful racecar driver, winning the grueling 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1959, before being sidelined by a heart condition. He reinvented himself as a car designer and salesman, and in the 1960s, the Ford Motor Company, led by CEO Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) issued him an almost comical challenge: build us a sleek, sexy and powerful vehicle that can rival a Ferrari and win at Le Mans, a race that Ferrari had dominated for years. Shelby agreed to give it a go– as long as Ken Miles (Bale) could take the wheel. The corporate wonks weren’t too pleased with the package deal, but c’est la vie.

Director James Mangold (Logan, Walk the Line, Kate & Leopold) balances the intensity of a high-stakes sports movie with the heart and soul of a friendship and family drama. The cars are cool, the competition is fierce, and the racing footage is fueled with adrenaline and danger; but in the end, it’s Damon and Bale that shift this movie into high gear.

Don’t let the title fool you – or drive you away. Put the pedal to the metal and check it out. Ford v Ferrari is a bittersweet ride worth taking.

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