The introductory narration of Ford v Ferrari inspires more than a little fear that this racing drama might just ride the clutch for 152 minutes. It’s a preponderance of purple prose about the weightlessness a driver feels when pushing an engine to 7,000 revolutions per minute. Matthew McConaughey isn’t anywhere to be found, but it certainly feels like we’re in for a very loooong, flashy Lincoln ad.

But rarely does such muscular studio entertainment kick into higher, faster and more surprising gears than Ford v Ferrari — which chronicles an inaugural clash of automotive titans during the 1960s at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and deeply characterizes Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and Ken Miles (Christian Bale), the irascible chums who captained Ford’s maiden vroom-vroom voyage at the French race.

It’s but the latest triumph from director James Mangold, who is arguably the most successful, exciting and underrated chameleonic filmmaker since Alan Parker. Always zigging where you think he’ll zag, Mangold has made emotionally sophisticated comic-book adaptations (Logan), pulpy Westerns (3:10 to Yuma), introspective biopics (Walk the Line), hellzapoppin action larks (Knight & Day), quiet cop dramas (Cop Land), Oscar-winning coming-of-age sagas (Girl, Interrupted), twisty psychological thrillers (Identity) and even frothy romantic comedies (Kate & Leopold).

A quarter-century into his career, Mangold is still testing frontiers and exploding expectations. Indeed, Ford v Ferrari is big-blue-yonder filmmaking unlike anything he’s done before. There’s a blazing beauty in this story’s intensity and intimacy — from sweeping exteriors that especially feel like a lightning strike when projected on an IMAX canvas to poignant moments where Shelby and Miles convey, and sometimes combat, the fragility that both confuses and defines them.

Like Tucker: The Man and His Dream or The Right Stuff, Ford v Ferrari is an acutely observant examination of the holes that an obsession with the envelope, the edge, the very line of what’s possible can leave and the ones it can fill. It creates consistent collision courses for commerce and conviction, ingenuity and image-making, and practicality and purpose that bear out with commanding drama. And it’s also a damn fine racing film whose supple and superb final act makes room for roars and whispers. What a layered, patient script Jason Keller and Jez & John-Henry Butterworth have delivered here — confident enough to convey how control has become an increasingly thin mirage for the men at its center without resorting to all-caps symbolism.

Before an elevated heartbeat pushed him into a life of putting others behind the wheel as an automobile designer, Carroll Shelby won 1959’s Le Mans. Le Mans is a grueling gauntlet during which teams balance speed, endurance and engineering know-how to keep the car running for a solid day straight. Shelby knows the winding, regularly rainy track well. So well that it haunts him as a high he’ll never again be able to approach.

Better than he’s been in nearly 20 years (excepting the unfairly maligned The Informant!), Damon plays Shelby like a metrosexual Marlboro Man in midlife crisis, with just a smidge of strung-out bloat. Damon’s is the more straightforward of the two lead roles here, but also the most sneakily impressive in the way that Shelby becomes a conduit for one of Ford v Ferrari’s many contexts. He, like so many World War II veterans of the era, simply felt more comfortable using tools than words. The former have purpose. The latter? Well, too often they merely obfuscate and obscure. At their worst, they can ruin.

Ken Miles, meanwhile, has no such issue with words. A man of voluminous, sometimes vulgar verbosity, Miles was a jocular journeyman gearhead — a Brit who’d made his way to America and played mechanic to middle-aged men unable to master the muscle cars they’d bought. His true passion was racing his self-styled MG in Sports Car Club of America races … and loudly running afoul of rules. That is, until he hit a governing body who would never yield: the IRS. 

At this point, the only challenge left for a hardass emeritus like Bale is to unclench, a feat he achieves here with what feels like the same effortlessness through which he constantly gains or loses pounds for parts. He plays Miles as a cross between Foghorn Leghorn and Keith Moon, with a bit of rangy physicality a la Dicky Eklund from The Fighter. But he always stays just on the believable side of Miles’ boisterous, boorish nature — partially through human homefront interactions with his no-nonsense wife, Mollie (Caitriona Balfe), and son, Peter (Noah Jupe), but also in the occasional flare-ups of his own anxieties. Forever bellowing at his opponents behind the wheel (with endlessly quotable brio), Miles easily armchairs everyone else’s faults. It’s harder for him to call out his own flaws, but Ford v Ferrari pushes Miles to places where he must self-reflect and confront the contradictions he finds.

Meanwhile, Ford marketing executive Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) floats the idea of implementing a racing division for the company. Such a move could make Ford feel cool again, Iacocca argues, citing the nascent popularity of 007. “He’s a degenerate,” Henry Ford II (or “The Deuce” as he’s known) barks back at a slide image of Bond. However, the magnate smells blood in the water when he learns of Ferrari’s pending bankruptcy and authorizes Iacocca to initiate the most American of moves: a takeover. Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) entertains Ford II’s multimillion-dollar offer. But after some subterfuge of his own, he rebuffs it and demeans Ford II’s legacy in an Italian tirade that really needs no translation.

As Ford II, playwright / character actor Tracy Letts allows us to see just how much of a charge this man gets from confrontation. Ferrari getting hot under the collar? It’s a victory because it proves Ford II should be taken seriously. But Ferrari spitting vitriol that suggests the number after Ford’s name is evidence that he’s merely a shadow of his father? That means war, and Ford II tasks Shelby and Miles — with all their attendant quirks and esoteric engineering — to transform Ford’s GT 40, take the checkered flag at Le Mans, and stick it to Ferrari. Shelby and his team will build the beast, and Miles will get behind the wheel to corral it.

Of course, there’s little love lost between Shelby and Miles; before they’re conscripted by Ford II, one conversation ends with the latter tossing a wrench at the former. After even more disagreements, they eventually resort to fisticuffs. But Mangold frames this fight to feel as ridiculous as possible — a futile flailing of wolf behavior to work out of their systems, the formalities of faded masculinity interfering with the zeniths of creativity they could hit. It’s a moment that’s also as riotous as it is revealing.

Honestly, Ford v Ferrari is just one meaty, masterful scene after another: Miles’ invocation of the perfect lap; a violent kickoff of Le Mans where pileups take place before some drivers even peel out; the near-disaster of the race’s first lap. The greatest bit arrives, though, when Shelby finally takes matters into his own hands after constant meddling from Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), a glory-hound lapdog executive to Ford II. It begins as a crowd-pleasing bit about putting one over on the suits, evolves to reveal a stirring sense of purpose in Ford II, and, in a retroactive revelation, invokes the idea of how the powerful have mastered the art of placation. (Keep your eye on Letts’ face here — namely his chin — for a small touch that sells it just so.)

Industry is mercurial. Image is paramount. Consensus and comfort often win out over true leadership and legacy. The final minutes of Ford v Ferrari understand the ways in which Shelby and Miles’ great experiment felt like both pyrrhic exploit and purring vision. A furiously entertaining, exceptionally thoughtful work of force and finesse, Ford v Ferrari is one of 2019’s best films.