Every grandmother in the UK, without fail, will receive a DVD of the new Downton Abbey movie for their next birthday. Every dad, meanwhile, should probably familiarise themselves with the basic plot of Le Mans ’66 – known elsewhere in the world as Ford v Ferrari – before the disc lands in their laps next year. This is a petrolhead biopic about the transcendent pleasure of driving really, really fast and the curative power of hitting stuff with hammers.
Despite the inter-company conflict set up by the movie’s title, the story focuses largely on two men without affiliation to either Ford or Ferrari. Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is a former winner of the 24-hour Le Mans endurance race, who now builds and sells performance cars. He is approached by executives on behalf of Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), whose company is “getting it in the tailpipe from a Chevy Impala” and who is therefore convinced to move into racing. Shelby agrees to help them develop the GT40 and prepare for Le Mans, bringing in his eccentric Brummie racer buddy Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to get behind the wheel.
When Le Mans ’66 takes to the track, it’s a thrilling piece of work. Director James Mangold knows his way around a pacy set-piece and the score, by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders, amplifies the intensity provided by the wall of engine noise. In voice-over, Shelby discusses the joy of reaching 7,000 rpm – a point at which “everything fades”, leaving simply the road and the car. This is a film that fetishises everything about driving in a way that even the most petrol-skeptic viewer won’t be able to resist.
The performances, too, are very strong indeed. Damon is quietly terrific as Shelby – a driven, creative individual who is gradually transformed into an unwilling corporate puppet as he becomes increasingly intertwined with his suit-wearing bosses. At times, he fizzes with creative energy, but he can often be seen with his ‘aww shucks’ tail between his legs when his superiors disagree with him. Josh Lucas delivers a deliciously sleazy turn as a high-ranking Ford official, while Letts is a top-quality curmudgeon as Ford. When he’s told that James Bond doesn’t drive one of his cars, Letts quips back that “it’s because he’s a degenerate”.
On less sure footing is Christian Bale, delivering one of his trademark broad, noisy performances. In contrast to his masterful work in the otherwise disappointing political biopic Vice, Bale’s turn as the Sutton Coldfield-born Miles lacks any subtlety or nuance, not least in his ludicrous accent and the layer of grease that seems to permanently coat his skin. Bale’s variable performance speaks to a broader problem with the film as a whole, which sacrifices emotion in order to cram in as much stuff as possible. By focusing on too many disparate story threads rather than zeroing in tightly on a specific idea, the movie occasionally falls flat.
This is a lengthy movie too, clocking in at over two and a half hours. While Mangold largely keeps the action moving with admirable thrust and energy, there are times at which the flab can be felt and it only makes the lack of heart all the more disappointing. Even the potentially intriguing relationship between Miles and his family – Caitriona Balfe plays his wife, while A Quiet Place star Noah Jupe is his son – quickly becomes an excuse to have some motoring Muggles to provide exposition during the third act, which is set almost entirely at Le Mans in the titular year. Balfe is sadly squandered entirely, simply sighing wearily at silly men in almost all of her scenes.
But Le Mans ’66 is really all about the cars and all about the track. It’s a movie that comes into its own when it’s about the visceral thrill of creativity and about crafting a machine that’s better than the one the other guy is driving. Mangold puts his audience right at the heart of it all, feeling every gear change and rush of acceleration. It’s a love letter to mechanical excellence that knows how to keep its narrative cornering smoothly, but it could’ve done with focusing a little more on the men behind the motors.
Dir: James Mangold
Scr: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, Jason Keller
Cast: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Caitriona Balfe, Josh Lucas, Jon Bernthal, Tracy Letts, JJ Feild, Noah Jupe, Jack McMullen, Remo Girone
Prd: Peter Chernin, James Mangold, Jenno Topping
DOP: Phedon Papamichael
Music: Marco Beltrami, Buck Sanders
Country: USA, France
Run time: 152 mins
Le Mans ’66 is screening as part of the BFI London Film Festival and will hit UK cinemas on 15th November 2019.