Le Mans ’66 (2019)
DIRECTOR: JAMES MANGOLD | RUNTIME: 2H 32MINS | BIOGRAPHY, DRAMA
Mid 1960’s and Ferrari dominates the race track whilst Ford churns out the everyday American car. Ford decide to enlist the help of sports car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to beat Ferrari at their own game – the 1966 24 hours of Le Mans race.
James Mangold is no stranger to either character studies or biographies, writing and directing on both Logan (2017) and Walk the Line (2008). With Le Mans ’66 he takes on both the fascinating story of two men’s ambitions to create the fastest car they can, and not-so-interesting story of two car manufacturers and their public imagines in Ford v Ferrari (which is the US release title of this film).
It opens with Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) attempting to light a fire in his employees at the factory, surrounded by the suits of the company as well. Sales aren’t great, and if they want to stay in the game they’ve got to make some changes – he wants someone to bring the next big step for Ford Motors to him. It seems that Lee Iacocca (played by a highly entertaining Jon Bernthal) has an idea – to buy the financially struggling Ferrari, and step into the world of sports cars and professional racing. It turns out they had no intention of being bought by Ford, merely a ruse for them to rise the price for Fiat. Henry Ford takes this personally, enlists the help of American car designer Carroll Shelby to create the motor to beat Ferrari in the next 24 hours of Le Mans. Knowing that it’s not just the car, but the driver too, Shelby brings in Ken Miles.
Shelby himself was a previous Le Mans champion, one of the only Americans till this point to do so, and Damon really embodies the character in a way that makes him sympathetic but we still respect the intelligence of his knowledge towards cars. Much like his performance in The Martian (2015), he’s effortlessly likeable and we’re easily lost in the character, no doubt that he actually knows what he’s talking about, and he has wonderful chemistry with our co-lead in Christian Bale’s Ken Miles. Not so much the people-person that Shelby is, he doesn’t lose any of the skill towards motoring. Unsurprisingly, Bale fits the role well, really slipping into Miles shoes without missing a step, making the ‘unlikeable’ character that much easier to root for. Potentially the only drawback for Bale is the British character falls into some stereotypes and clichés, especially those surrounding cups of tea. It’s not overly distracting, but holds the role back from being really great.
It follows suit with many biopics, being fairly predictable in the outcome of the titular race, but that’s not why we’re watching. Even if you didn’t know the true story it wouldn’t be any surprise how it all would end, instead the excitement comes from how they get there and the obstacles they had to endure. It’s structured well, likely re-writing some of the historical accuracies to make it more cinematic, but there’s hardly a dull moment. The only parts that slow the pace are between Ken and his family – it’s sweet, but it doesn’t feel completely necessary to see their reactions during each race, for example. Much of the film is centered around Shelby and Miles fighting the suits at Ford, a corporation against the enthusiasts. They want the same goal – to win the at the 24 hours of Le Mans, but one side wants a more photogenic, camera friendly approach – the other knows winning isn’t about that. It creates a fairly interesting dynamic that almost creates a artist vs corporation interaction.
The racing itself is exciting as well, though it does succumb to the Fast & Furious way of filming; the intense sequences always need a hard push on the accelerator, slam the clutch and a stiff gear change – and there’s always another gear. It’s far less choppy than it’s street racing counterparts, but sometimes falls into some of the well used techniques in previous films. That being said, all of the races are still very exciting, and something that many other car-centric films miss during these sequences is the real sense of geography; we always understand where each driver is and have a good sense of how far along the track they are. Many inferior films have the cars racing without the audience getting a good grasp on where they are in relation to each other and how far into race they are.
It doesn’t feel like Mangold wanted to create the most artistic, original biopic, instead going for a highly entertaining and heartfelt story about two gear-heads creating the fastest vehicle they can, fighting big corporations and those dastardly Italians in their Ferrari’s – its easy, well made fun with some great central performances, and don’t be surprised if you see some awards buzz around those involved.