Director James Mangold brings us 2019’s most purely exhilarating night out at the cinema – here’s our review of Le Mans ’66 (aka Ford V Ferrari).
We still don’t know quite what Disney’s acquisition of Fox means for the future of films like Le Mans ’66, but it would be a shame if we saw less of them. Coming out under the wire, this 20th Century Fox vehicle (which will be released as Ford V Ferrari in the States) is an old-fashioned, rip-roaring, studio-produced “dad movie” that nevertheless evokes the feeling of getting away with something more daring.
Taking place between 1963 and 1966, the film turns a corporate grudge between Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) and Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) into an utterly cinematic drama. Affronted by the Europeans’ dismissal of Ford’s motoring legacy, Ford II drafts in automotive designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) to design a car that can beat Ferrari’s indefatigable racing team at the forthcoming 24-hour Le Mans endurance race.
As an erstwhile Le Mans champion himself, Shelby wants only one driver to help him perfect that car – fearless journeyman Ken Miles (Christian Bale) – but their working relationship is as chequered as the flag at the finish line. While Shelby is more optimistic than Miles about collaborating on the big-budget project, the two men are soon locked in a battle of wills with Ford’s leadership, with every decision making the difference between first and second place.
Just as you’d hope for a movie about making a really fast car, Mangold’s film moves apace. Both on and off the racetrack, it’s purely exhilarating stuff, making it the fastest two-and-a-half hours you’ll spend in a cinema this year. But if you know the director at all by now, you’ll already expect that it’s not merely about its (superb) racing scenes or its (terrific) leading performances.
At times, the film recalls The Martian’s depiction of a team taking on a massive technical challenge against unfavourable odds, but as the film’s quiet centre, Damon’s Shelby is no Mark Watney. In the opening sequence, we meet him as he stubbornly tries not to pass out during his Le Mans-winning efforts and he feels similarly clenched throughout all of the drama that follows. Backed by his pent-up, understated performance, the film conveys the ever-mounting personal stakes through its tone rather than exposition.
On the showier side of things, Bale is having more fun than we’ve seen him have on screen for years as Miles. Once again bringing his weight to the opposite extreme after his corpulent turn as Dick Cheney in Vice, he bellows in an Americanised Brummie accent that takes a little time to get used to, but he’s at his most charismatic here. (“He is difficult, but good”, as one observer baldly puts it.) Though no less determined than Shelby, his Miles is more matter-of-fact both on and off the track, earning the lion’s share of the film’s big laughs.
Meanwhile, if you’ve followed Mangold’s career or you’re any kind of film buff, there’s an enjoyable added dimension to the creative conflicts. Shelby finds himself accountable to a wide array of middlemen, from Jon Bernthal’s sympathetic suit to Josh Lucas’ detestably petty executive, with Letts’ passionately pompous Ford II at the top of the tree.
And so, the pair find themselves subject to notes from people who don’t know what they’re talking about. These are personal and creative stakes rather than a matter of life and death, or to put it in the terms of Mangold’s filmmaking experience, it’s as if Shelby and Miles are trying to make Logan, whereas Ford is pressing them to make The Wolverine.
Having come out of the other side of making Logan, this feels like Mangold getting the kind of creative control he may not be afforded by Disney executives, who were angling for him to make a Boba Fett-centric Star Wars movie before Solo underperformed at the box office.
Underlined by the direct contrast between American and European practices, there’s a ringing Hollywood subtext to Damon as the harangued creative and Bale as the wildcard who has to perform, both being pressed down upon by the sort of people who you half expect to say things like “Does it have to be a car?” But with it, this is a lighter, funnier, and more crowd-pleasing outing than either of Mangold’s X-Men franchise entries, and it feels like a palate cleanser all around.
Although biopics about ‘difficult but good’ male egos are ten a penny, it’s more than just subtext that makes this stand out. Built on a witty, four-square script, (which comes from writers Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, Jason Keller) the film continually moves up to different gears throughout its running time, while also giving meaty supporting roles to Caitriona Balfe and Noah Jupe as Miles’ wife and son. It’s not lean and mean, but it’s never sluggish either, even if the film’s extended epilogue represents a last-minute cooldown period before you leave the cinema.
But in an otherwise exceptionally blokey film, Balfe’s funny and insightful turn never feels less than essential. It’s touches like her performance that elevate the film beyond the corporate squabble that inspired it and draw you closer to the edge of your seat. In the end, the spectacular racing scenes, expertly assembled by cinematographer Phelan Papamichael and editors Michael McCusker and Andrew Buckland, only add to the excitement.
As award season looms, Le Mans ’66 is sure to mount a run on the technical categories, but the joy of it is that it’s just as accomplished on the creative side. Mangold has played an absolute blinder with this one, making the most of Damon and Bale’s winning double-act and super-charging a familiar, self-serious sports drama into a thrilling and accessible passion project. You can pay for the 4DX upgrade if you like, but even in regular screenings, this is lively, seat-rattling stuff.
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