Little makes American nostalgia sing quite like the Hollywood spectacularisation of competition – industry wars or sporting events, commonly against the Soviets but just as inanely satisfying against any foreign rival. James Mangold’s Le Mans ’66 (or Ford v Ferrari in the US) follows the familiar blueprint of all those other inspirational, against-the-odds tales stuffed through with sentimentality and dad jokes – though in this case the dull formulaic drama is stirred out of its slumber by its testosterone-fuelled racing scenes and the personalities of its leading men.
Certificate U 108m 19s
Director James Mangold
Ken Miles Christian Bale
Mollie Miles Caitriona Balfe
Carroll Shelby Matt Damon
Lee Iacocca Jon Bernthal
Leo Beebe Josh Lucas
Peter Miles Noah Jupe
Phil Remington Ray McKinnon
Roy Lunn JJ Feild
Henry Ford II Tracy Letts
Based on the true story of the Ford Motor Company’s early racing programme, the film depicts the determination of car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and hot-tempered British-born driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to break Ferrari’s winning streak at the Le Mans 24-hour competition. At the start, Henry Ford II is prepared to shut down the factory, but after Enzo Ferrari rebuffs his bid to buy out the Italian car manufacturer with a string of ball-busting insults, Ford’s mangled honour has him willing to invest whatever it takes to engineer a superior racing car.
Various obstacles crop up before team Miles and Shelby’s spankin’ new GT40 Mk I makes it to the climactic 1966 race in Le Mans – namely a meddling VP, Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas, playing the Elmer Fudd to Bale’s Bugs Bunny), and the trial-and-error challenges of race-car engineering. No one, particularly the publicity-minded Beebe, wants Miles representing the illustrious US company, but Shelby knows there’s no other man for the job and plays the big-brotherly champion to the driver’s genius behind the wheel. The film maintains this mawkish approach in its depiction of Miles’s family life, his doting son and supportive wife clearly meant to amplify the toll of his daily risk-chasing.
The drama works best as a tale of male friendship, brought to life by Bale and Damon’s easy rapport, even if their characters are slightly flattened by their macho posturing and puritan devotion to the craft. The two stray into caricature – good-guy Damon with his Ray-Bans and tengallon hats, Bale with his pouty, devil-may-care swagger – though such an approach works within the film’s kitschy trappings.
Marco Beltrami’s breezy, jazz-infused score and Ken and Carroll’s slick repartee help to maintain a sense of lightness, sprinkling humour and awe over years of transactions and the growing pains of innovation. That’s not to say the film is consistently compelling; domestic strife and bureaucratic roadblocks are predictably and repetitively introduced, dreary reminders of its otherwise artless narrative.
It’s a good thing the weight of the film is placed firmly in the driver’s seat, with jarring, propulsive sound design and immersive behind-the-wheel camerawork. But this neat explainer of the ’66 race never really captures the gritty, gasoline-soaked danger of the profession in the way that Steve McQueen or Tom Cruise once did in similar vehicles, and the family-friendly suppression of the racetrack’s inherent eroticism certainly causes the film to lose some of its edge. Nevertheless, a thoroughly basic drama is salvaged by bouts of undeniable adrenaline and the magnetic pull of its cast of manly men.