Starring Matt Damon, Christian Bale. Directed by James Mangold.
Le Mans ’66, also known as Ford v Ferrari in other territories, is an interesting prospect from the get-go: a film that charts the bid that Ford Motors made to beat Ferrari at the 24 hour Le Mans race in France for the first time.
The film itself is a chalk-n-cheese story about the friendship and working relationship between former racer-turned-engineer Carroll Shelby and difficult racer and engineer Ken Miles as they worked under the watchful gaze of Henry Ford II.
Director James Mangold is a much underrated director; only for his previous film, superhero opus Logan did he receive an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, but actually his back catalogue veers towards good more than bad. When he’s on form he’s Heavy, Cop Land, Girl Interrupted, Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma, Logan. When he’s bad he’s Kate & Leopold, The Wolverine, Knight and Day. Luckily, Le Mans ’66 is on form.
The film to which this appears to owe a debt to is the Ron Howard film Rush that charted the rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda as they duked it out to be the best racer in the world, here we don’t get a v Ferrari that much as the film is much more about looking into the two men that made Ford able to compete.
Mangold and his director of photography Phedon Papamichael manage to wring the most from the chases, but also the more emotional and human moments, filling scenes with genuine threat as the cars go fast, but knowing when the keep a quiet lens for the more intimate moments. Mangold is a great director of actors and when he has a good script he can craft an excellent scene of actors.
The screenplay written by Jez Butterworth (The Last Legion, Edge of Tomorrow, Get on Up, Black Mass, Spectre), John-Henry Butterworth (Fair Game, Edge of Tomorrow, Get on Up, Despite the Night) and Jason Keller (Machine Gun Preacher, Mirror Mirror, Escape Plan) craft a story that has just enough explaining of how things work for the non-initiated and on-the-nose dialogue that can actually be fun to watch, while also being able to craft a scene that features laugh out loud lines.
This all parlays into performances that are electric to watch. The film is really about Matt Damon’s laconic Southerner Shelby, and Christian Bale’s tempestuous Brit Miles and how they clash and come together. It’s not hard to imagine that the two do great work as both are seasoned pros who know how to do this. For Damon there is an easier task as the more likeable Shelby who is all sunglasses and stetsons, with his southern drawl sounding at times like Tommy Lee Jones.
Bale, significantly thinner than when he was bombing around as Dick Cheney, manages to make us interesting in the obsessive drive of Miles, his northern voice and British sensibility being something we can cling to. It’s his relationship with his wife Mollie and son Peter that we see the more tender side of him and find that we care about him.
The film being about them the supporting characters are fairly thin, despite a good cast that includes Tracy Letts, Caitriona Balfe, Jon Bernthal, Josh Lucas and Noah Jupe.
As it is a sports film the tension is that will it work for non-fans of the sport, and it works perfectly. If you don’t know how it plays out it’s nail bitingly tense at all times, the race scenes shot to perfection, and if you do then the interest comes from the interplay between the characters and their various motivations.
There is an element by which you spend a long time before Le Mans rolls around, and despite it being about Ford and Ferrari it really is a film about Ford’s side, with Enzo Ferrari seen only a handful of times and more of a mafia figure than anything else. The finale of the film that shows the 24 hour race doesn’t ever really have you feeling like the race has been going for that long but even so it works well enough to build tension for a thrilling final lap.
In the end your patience for race scenes might be what keeps you invested, though the character work is also perfectly pitched. It’s a two-hander between the two leads who are perfectly charismatic and do the job, and for Mangold it’s a perfect – if more lightweight – follow up to the sombre story of Logan.