In the lead-up to the climactic contest of Le Mans ’66, Christian Bale’s Ford driver Ken Miles and Matt Damon’s car designer Carroll Shelby come face-to-face with a gleaming new red Ferrari as it's rolled out onto the track for the first time. “If this were a beauty pageant, we just lost,” Miles deadpans.
His assessment is perhaps an interesting metaphor for James Mangold’s racing drama, released as it is in the early stages of the Oscars race. You’ll definitely see more ‘showy’ films this awards season (and that doesn't necessarily mean visually), but few as solidly constructed, technically proficient and well crafted. As Shelby goes on to explain, showy isn’t always what matters…
Focused as much on the events leading up to the titular 24-hour race as the competition itself, Le Mans’ 66 (titled Ford V Ferrari in the US) recounts the attempt by Ford – a bureaucratic American carmaker in the middle of a branding crisis – to dethrone its “sexier” Italian rival, a manufacturer with a monopoly on podium finishes. To do this, the Ford suits call on showman (and former racer) Shelby to build them a car capable of finally beating Ferrari on the racetrack. Shelby wants the “difficult but good” Miles, his longtime pal, on board to make his machine fly, but the Brit driver’s unwillingness to toe the line doesn’t win him many fans in the boardroom…
At its core, this is a true sporting underdog tale and, as with all of the genre's best contenders, it features a plucky, scruffy upstart of a team taking on a capable, confident reigning champ. But, as you might imagine, the corporate conflict proves much less compelling than the two leads themselves.
In some respects, Bale and Damon’s characters are chalk and cheese – one a hot-headed, cantankerous “troublemaker”; the other a cool, collected and charismatic people person – but what they share is a singular vision, one that ends up earning them the respect of their on-track adversaries and the ire of their interfering bosses. Their friendship is both unexpectedly funny (Bale’s Brummie-accented cheeky chappie especially earns the bulk of the laughs) and surprisingly sweet, making for a likeable double-act that’s easy to root for – one of the crucial ingredients for a story like this. Put simply, you want them to win.
The other key component, of course, is the racing sequences, and Mangold (director of the likes of Walk The Line and Logan) and his crew absolutely nail them. Taking a page out of Ron Howard’s Rush playbook, the racetrack action scenes are tense, thrilling and technically brilliant – the mix of swooping camerawork, cockpit close-ups and roaring sound design really gets across the speed and excitement of the sport – but they also work hard to convey the sheer danger that the drivers of the era faced.
The crashes are hard and wince-inducing, often jolting you out of a false sense of security. One scene in particular, in which Miles has a lucky escape when an early prototype of the Ford car meets an abrupt, fiery end – as his young son (A Quiet Place’s Noah Jupe) watches on in shock from afar – is horrifying. The nighttime races, too – complete with lashing rain and blinding headlights – add an extra element of danger. It’s edge-of-your-seat stuff.
Elsewhere, the supporting performances provide Bale and Damon with solid backup. Best of the bunch is Outlander’s Caitriona Balfe as Miles’ wife, Molly – a turn that adds some real heart, humour and human interest, piercing some of the machismo in an otherwise very bloke-heavy film – while Jon Bernthal rocks a suit as Ford VP Lee Iacocca and Hulk’s Josh Lucas is on sneering bad-guy duties once again as meddlesome Ford exec Leo Beebe.
At 152 minutes, Mangold’s vehicle isn’t quite as lean or streamlined as it could have been, especially with its extended climax (perhaps a natural side effect of having to stage a recreation of an iconic, 24-hour race); shaving off some time would have likely made it a much smoother ride. It doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel, either – though it’s based on a true story, the film does hit all the sports-movie beats you’d expect and sticks pretty closely within the genre lines. Still, it’s an energetic effort from one of the most underrated and consistent directors working today– it might not end up nabbing Mangold any trophies, but it’s a winning addition to his already impressive achievements.
Le Mans '66 is in cinemas now.