Director: James Mangold
Writers: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, Jason Keller
Starring: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Jon Bernthal
American car designer Carroll Shelby (Damon) is asked by Ford to build and develop a car that can challenge the all-conquering Ferrari’s at the Le Mans 24-hour race. However, much to the dissatisfaction of the powers that be he also enlists the help of fearless, but independent minded British racing driver Ken Miles (Bale). The two of them battle the odds, each other and corporate interference to develop the revolutionary Ford GT40 that they hope can challenge and perhaps win at Le Mans.
Who doesn’t love a sporting underdog story? The fictional ones may be a bit too cheesy for their own good, but the ones based on a true story have all of the initial ingredients for a genuinely uplifting and enjoyable film. Le Mans ’66 (or Ford V Ferrari as it is called everywhere else) certainly uses this to superb effect to create an immensely enjoyable, uplifting, thrilling and engaging film.
From John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix (review) in 1966 to Ron Howard’s Rush (review) in 2013 (blimey, was it really that long ago?!?), motor racing has proved to be one of the most potentially cinematic sports in terms of both the visuals and the sound, but also thematically in the fact that it can be life or death. The combination of a great true story, along with well-made sequences that truly capture the essence of what motor racing can be, can produce a film that will not only appeal to petrolheads, but also have a more universal appeal.
I would argue that excellent films such as Senna and Rush most definitely achieved this (for all of its stunning visuals, Grand Prix did admittedly have a fictional story that was a little bland), and Le Mans ’66 is another addition to that list. These films have the right balance of high-octane action and characters that are genuinely engaging. In the case of Le Mans ’66, it is definitely a film that feels like a hark back to a previous era, and not just in the fact that the film is set in the 60s, but also in its actual story and characters. The narrative centres on a sparky bromance of which the two protagonists are both very memorable characters that are worth truly routing for, without ever being excessively clichéd. From what I know of the true story, a lot of the main elements are there, but of course there will be a certain creative license and reliance on genre clichés for the sake of drama. As I always say, it is not necessary clichés that are the problem, but how they are presented, and when a film like Le Mans ’66 gives us memorable characters to believe in then clichés are inevitably far more forgivable. The sharp and witty script not only brings the characters truly to life, but also makes sure that the film revs along at a good, consistent pace without ever losing traction.
Having well-written characters is of course only the half of it, as without great performances even the best script will be wasted. In what I believe is their first film together (correct me if I am wrong) Christian Bale and Matt Damon not only excel in their chalk and cheese rules, but crucially also share an undeniable and obvious screen chemistry. It does seem quite clear that the two of them are having a great time making the film, and their enjoyment is definitely infectious as we cannot help but believe in their character’s deep routed friendship and mutual respect. Bale’s livewire performance as the tea-swigging brummie (accent and all) Ken Miles is great to watch (and one that would be expected to come naturally to him) and often hilarious. Meanwhile Matt Damon arguably has the tougher job, but he plays the cowboy hat-wearing Carroll Shelby with an air of quiet dignity. Excellent support is also provided by Catriona Balfe as Ken’s wife.
Inevitably in a film like this there will be antagonists, and though these are certainly the more clichéd characters, Josh Lucas gives a suitably smarmy and boo-hiss performance as Ford corporate bigwig Leo Beebe, who inevitably dislikes our two heroes and tries to undermine them at every turn. Likewise, Tracy Letts certainly chews a bit too much scenery as Henry Ford II. Though moments involving these two characters do sometimes clunk a little bit too much occasionally, they are a forgivable element and the inevitability is much easier to accept due to the fact that we care about the two main characters.
The film’s visuals are also stunning, with James Mangold truly managing to capture the speed and danger of motor racing in the 60s. Apparently for the internal driving scenes the actors were actually inside cars going at a fair pace (but being driven by someone else), and it certainly does show. Some of the film’s racing sequences are truly edge-of-the-seat stuff without ever feeling overlong or repetitive, and despite the film’s relatively long running time of 152 minutes, it does tend to go by at quite a pace. There are some moments that do not work quite so well and stick out like a sore thumb, such as some scenes which try to be philosophical on the art of motor racing and stating that drivers are able to enter a zen-like state when driving at 7000 rpm do not quite work so well, and do feel out of place. However, despite these and the occasional reliance on clichés, Le Mans ‘66 is otherwise a good, old-fashioned yarn that is incredibly entertaining and tremendous fun from start to finish.
It may not win any prizes for originality, but Le Mans ’66 takes a very familiar formula extremely well to create a film with engaging characters and thrilling visuals that is pure escapism entertainment for all viewers.