Le Mans ’66 (a.k.a. Ford v Ferrari), 2019.
Directed by James Mangold.
Starring Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Josh Lucas, Caitriona Balfe, Tracy Letts, Jon Bernthal, Noah Jupe, JJ Feild, Ray McKinnon and Remo Girone.
American car designer Carroll Shelby and driver Ken Miles battle corporate interference, the laws of physics and their own personal demons to build a revolutionary race car for Ford and challenge Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966.
Le Mans ’66 (a.k.a Ford v. Ferrari in the U.S. – an annoying spanner in the works) motors along pretty well, considering it’s a bit of a beast at two and a half hours – admirably, the pace rarely lags. It’s second feat is keeping the stakes of the story high throughout, when the film is basically just about manufacturing and testing racing cars. But these cars – with the true-to-life human drama surrounding them – make for a fun ride.
The cars themselves, as they race in competition, are beautifully shot. Unsurprisingly, as the title suggests, the film builds to the climatic, ultimate test for a car (and drivers): victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s oldest active sports car rest, and generally considered one of the most prestigious. As the American title suggests, it’s Ford against Ferrari, as the dependable but less glamorous U.S. manufacturer looks to get the better of Ferrari after a takeover offer goes sour. Car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) recruits temperamental but brilliant British driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to give Ford its best shot at victory – but they have to build, test and refine a car capable of the feat in a matter of weeks. So there’s lots of laps, in test and competition, leading up to the final race – which is (obviously) 24 hours long. Phedon Papamichael is up to the challenge, with streamlined and exciting cinematography and a variety of shots that manage to convey the danger and euphoria of racing to an audience. You’re basically just watching cars drive laps of a circuit, but it’s handled well enough you rarely remember that.
Matt Damon and Christian Bale are both reliably good in the lead roles, and bring exactly what is expected of their characters – as well as their general casting. Damon is his usual straight-talking, determined and passionate guy, likeable even when he’s being naughty, and Bale is kind of a prick, emphasising the difficult aspects of Miles’ character and leaning into his character’s Birmingham roots (although it took a while to identify, through a pinch of Cockney too?). Neither actor is stretched though, and they’ve both had better material with which to work.
Caitriona Balfe (Outlander) gets a decent go of things as Miles’ wife Mollie, including a fiery driving scene of her own where she makes her point with Ken. Noah Jupe, recently excellent in Honey Boy, also has a good role as the Miles’ son, Peter, and does particularly well with the accent. Both parts are essentially watching from the sidelines cheering on, but some work has been done to flesh them out to more than just the bare bones that Hollywood so often gets away with.
Where the wheels threaten to come off for Le Mans ’66 is the film’s lack of subtlety and tendency to over-simplify. Obviously, the corporate conflict within – and with – Ford powers most of the film (drama is conflict, after all), but it tends to be done with little nuance or flair. Josh Lucas is very firmly put in the ‘villain’ box as Ford executive Leo Beebe, and although he is convincing as a smarmy and ruthless man, he has to bring almost all the conflict himself. It’s also so unsubtle that it’s quite unbelievable he would be rewarded with a promotion, as he is. The Ferrari team is also reduced to a stereotypically Italian, voiceless (but loud!) enemy. As sympathetic Ford man Lee Iacocca, Jon Bernthal is allowed to be the ‘good guy’ of the corporation, mediating between Carroll and Miles and the Ford suits. He is certainly likeable, but, again, his role seems a little too one-dimensional and predictable.
Tracy Letts is intimidating as the pompous Henry Ford II, struggling with the albatross of his father’s reputation around his neck, and looking for a way to make his own. Again, a little one-note, but he does inject some good energy and provocation into scenes. A highlight of the film is Shelby taking Ford for a spin in the car he and Miles have developed for Le Mans, allowing the vehicle – and the experience – to speak for itself.
Although writers Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller deal well with deploying a large cast evenly, as well as structuring and keeping the narrative fast-paced, the lack of detail and nuance is regrettable. It prevents Le Mans ’66 from reaching fifth gear. This is also a little surprising as Jez Butterworth is well-renowned as a gifted playwright, but things don’t seem to quite translate here. The end of the film, although affecting, is also anticipated by signalling that’s too obvious. Le Mans ’66 is quite an old-fashioned movie – it’s nothing that hasn’t been done before. Although possibly comforting in a blockbuster-y way, it also limits its impact.
Ultimately, Le Mans ’66 is an entertaining yarn, but possibly a movie that’ll only make multiple laps around the track if you’re a petrolhead.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★