There are a lot of eyes on Le Mans ’66 (or Ford v Ferrari, as it’s known in the US), because it was produced by 20th Century Fox, but is being released by Disney following that mammoth entertainment acquisition. It’s almost become the epitome of ‘the type of film that they don’t make much any more’, or, more specifically, the type of film that might become the preserve of streaming services rather than the cinema. It’s fuelled by star power and old-school filmmaking, not brand recognition or franchise potential. But while its full-throttle racing sequences and charismatic performances earn its big-screen placement, Le Mans ’66 doesn’t quite reach its potential with the portions of the film that take place off the track.
If you’re unfamiliar with the titular race, you won’t slip behind. No prior knowledge is required, and it doesn’t matter if you don’t know your pit stop from your pole position; Le Mans ’66 needs no prior interest in the sport in the same way that you needn’t be a boxing fanatic to enjoy Rocky. At heart, it’s a character piece. A platonic romance between two men who are best able to express themselves behind the wheel. Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon, affable as ever) is a former racer-turned-car designer. In the ’60s he’s hired by Ford to head up the ailing motor company’s morale-boosting effort to win the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race. And, more specifically, to beat the reigning Ferrari team while doing soon so.
Shelby brings in his buddy Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to not only help design the vehicle that Ford is betting the farm on, but to also drive it. The aptly named Miles is purely driven by his passion for the automotive arts and an unquenchable need for speed. Wayward Brummie accent aside, it’s a lovely, warm performance from Bale. There’s the trademark intensity – heightened by his geometrically sharp cheekbones – but here it’s in service to a common goal, and a love of the sport. Miles is cantankerous, and doesn’t suffer fools, but there’s a sweetness to his family-man side and the sheer thrill he gets from racing, hooting things like, “Giddy-up!” as he pushes the rev counter to its limit.
If Miles is the heart of the team, Shelby’s the head – bringing his own racing expertise to bear while also managing the expectations of the suits upstairs, including the irascible Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), and smarmy marketing type Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas). (There’s a barely hidden filmmaking analogy here, as the creative visionaries struggle to keep their ideas on track while placating the needs of the exectutives.)
Throw in Jon Bernthal as another, more amenable, exec and the cast starts to feel a little bloated, especially given that the two-hours-thirty runtime is generous for a film on a largely predictable track. Bernthal's good, but did we really need another middle-man in the mix, given that Shelby already occupies that negotiator role. Le Mans ’66 truly roars into life during the racing scenes, and particularly in the final act show-stopper. The visceral, pulse-quickening laps instantly join the canon of great race sequences, and they’re a testament to the skill of director James Mangold and his team, rivalling the set pieces in any more obviously ‘bankable’ blockbusters.
But Mangold’s film is never quite so compelling when its not behind the wheel of a record-breaking sports car. For one thing, the US title Ford v Ferrari is somewhat misleading – yes, Ford are looking to unseat the Italian giants, but the latter are so little seen that there’s never a palpable sense of a head-to-head rivalry. In their extremely minimal screentime, the Italians come across as scowling stereotypes. And on the subject of stereotypes, Outlander’s Caitriona Balfe is lumbered with an extremely limited supportive-wife role as Mollie Miles. It’s apparent that she knows her way around an engine, but she’s rarely required to do more that squint concernedly at a radio while her husband races. The family scenes don’t quite get under the skin of Miles’ compulsions in the way that First Man explored the selfish aspects of Neil Armstrong’s pursuits.
It’s on the physical side that Le Mans ’66 really delivers – not only in the aforementioned races, but in the lo-fi mechanics, and the pit stops that take an eternity in comparison to modern-day refuelling methods. The film is a visual treat, an expertly crafted piece of sun-burnished Americana, with enough thrilling sequences to make it worthy of a big-screen excursion. Mangold’s career to date has seen a mix of straightforward blockbusters (Knight and Day, The Wolverine) and character pieces (Cop Land, Girl, Interrupted, Walk The Line), but Le Mans ’66 doesn’t straddle that divide as effectively as Mangold’s last film, Logan, did.
Le Mans '66 was first reviewed at TiFF. Other movies reviewed at the festival by Total Film include Knives Out, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, Jojo Rabbit and The Personal History of David Copperfield.