By Naomi Roper
It’s the swinging sixties and Ferrari dominates the world of motor racing. Ford motor cars have fallen out of favour with the youth of America who don’t want to be seen driving the same car as their parents. To reverse a sales slump Henry Ford II (Tracey Letts) invites ideas from his executives as to how they can put Ford back in the spotlight. After a planned merger with Ferrari fails Lee Iacocca (who spearheaded development of the Ford Mustang) (Jon Bernthal) suggests that Ford put together a team to compete against Ferrari on their own turf at the Le Mans race. Enter Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) the only American at that stage to have won Le Mans. He promises Ford that he can design a car that will enable Ford to triumph over Ferrari’s precision engineering. However a car is only as good as it’s driver and Shelby’s choice of Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a bold, brash Brummie who’s a demon behind the wheel causes friction with Ford management. Can our boys triumph against the odds?
If I had my time again I fervently wish I had spent 5 minutes googling the facts behind this film before watching because if I had my expectations for my evening’s entertainment would have been very different. For 95% of its run time, Le Mans ’66 (or Ford v Ferrari as it’s being marketed as overseas) is a fun “odd ducks triumph against impossible odds” piece. We have our goodies Shelby and Miles doing battle against our baddies – the impossibly arrogant team at Ferrari and the incompetent idiots at Ford management (Josh Lucas– all sharp suits and sneering idiocy). I know nothing about motorsports and could care less about it but my god director James Mangold hooks you. I have never been so invested in the outcome of a race. Every fibre of my being was willing Miles to triumph. The film builds and builds and builds towards this one central race and then…our cheery Hollywood narrative is unfortunately upended. In reality, Ford management cheated Miles of his win before fate dealt the cruellest blow the very next year. Obviously, unless Mangold wanted to opt for a bit of Tarantino style revisionist history there is nothing that can be done about the facts but it does mean that the final act is both anti-climatic and remarkably deflating. I’m sure racing fans will adore it but I’m interested to see how this will play out with general audiences unfamiliar with the facts as the film is being marketed as a feel-good crowd-pleaser and it’s really not.
What it is is a fairly standard Oscar-bait period biopic. The script (by Jezz and John Henry Butterworth no less who co-write alongside Jason Keller) walks a fine line between interesting character study and motor racing info dump. Unfortunately with a piece like this, there is no way to get away from scenes of characters explaining what they’re doing as they’re doing it as a means of educating those with only the vaguest notion of what Le Mans is. It’s a film about and for men, and those who find Top Gear to be thrilling telly. Three things elevate Le Mans 66 from being the sort of biopic you instantly forget you watched as soon as the end credits come up – an exceptional performance from Christian Bale, truly exhilarating racing sequences and Jon Bernthal clad in very fine suits.
Bale has a history of exceptional committed performances but he really does outclass the pack here. Not only does he get Miles Brummie accent and physicality spot on (although I did spend much of the film wanting to fix him a nice sandwich – man is terrifyingly gaunt in this) but he finds the warmth, humour and humanity in a tricky, prickly character. Matt Damon wisely just gets out of the way and lets Bale do his thing but I think Damon doesn’t quite get enough respect for his effortless everyman persona. It’s actually not that easy to be as consistently warm and likeable as Damon is on screen and his scenes where he goes toe to toe with Tracey Letts are particularly impressive. Bernthal is utterly wasted in his role but looks so good throughout in those beautifully tailored suits it was hard to complain. But someone give this guy a decent starring role, please. As his performances in The Punisher and Sweet Virginia showed he is an actor of extraordinary range and nuance and deserves to get more than these brief background roles. Catriona Balfe makes a good fist of her “wife” role. As refreshing as it was to see the wife of the lead portrayed in a supporting way (rather than the usual “shrew nagging wife” caricature”) it’s still a very small role. But hey baby steps!
The racing sequences are extraordinary, you can almost feel the rumble of the engines, the wind whipping past the cars as they struggle to steer their course. I was right there in the driver’s seat with Miles willing the car to not fall apart around me. Mangold deserves all the praise for how exhilarating and exciting the racing scenes are to watch.
Le Mans 66 is a stylish period biopic elevated by Christian Bale at the height of his acting prowess and thrilling racing sequences that practically put you in the driver’s seat.
Le Mans 66 is released in the UK on general release on 15 November 2019.