A Fleeting Sense of Speed – Le Mans ’66 (Film Review)

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Movies about motorsport – or rather about people driving cars very quickly –  seem to inhabit a curious no man’s land of legitimacy. The more popular and numerous efforts eschew realism or connections to the sport entirely and are the province of street racers or, increasingly, street racers turned heist merchants. Efforts that offer reverential nods to auto racing – Le Mans or Days of Thunder are fewer and further between, despite what would seem to be a potential wealth of inspiration and stories from a sport that should lend itself to roaring movie action.

James Mangold’s re-telling of the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans and the battle between rival teams Ferrari and Ford (the movie is titled Ford v Ferrari elsewhere) lands with a crash of kudos for racing fans. It’s a movie that treats its subject matter with a degree of piety. 

The trick for Mangold is to deliver something which balances the twin demands of appealing to die-hards and casual viewers alike. There needs to be a marrying of the mainstream sprightliness found in Ron Howard’s Rush with the eye for detail of Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix. 

I would say he just about delivers it, although I’m unconvinced this will linger in the memory. Le Mans 66 feels authentic enough to please devotees of racing but accessible – perhaps I should say formulaic – enough not to alienate anyone not turned on by the idea of an afternoon at Gurston Down Hillclimb. 

Everything is delivered with plenty of gusto and an old-fashioned air of macho ballsiness. As it enters its final few laps though you notice more and more that, despite the full-throttle approach, Le Mans 66 doesn’t really excel at a great deal. The denouement at the Circuit de la Sarthe slips into the kind of cliches that the movie had done well to avoid up until that point, and you notice it.

Sporting movie tropes get rolled out with a bit too much ease: a perennial nuisance being the commentator who explains the consequences of an on-track pass, mishap or piece of drama to the audience immediately after the moment. Or worse, a bystander idly remarking to a colleague that somebody will need to make a pass on the current lap in order to win the race, only for it to happen a few seconds later.

It does trade in noise and drama with energy, though. Matt Damon and Christian Bale are a spirited pair of leading men as car designer Carroll Shelby and racer Ken Miles respectively. The dialogue revels in a virile brand of banter that keeps the show zipping along, despite a hefty run time in excess of two and a half hours. Bale’s Ken Miles is the quintessential English eccentric, garden shed tinkerer. He seems to be revelling, too, in a script that, for all his intimidating method persona, reminds you he is a dab hand at moments of levity.

It’s a movie, and indeed a world, that is basically uninhabited by women, though. Caitriona Balfe gets a thoroughly thankless role as Miles’ wife, relegated to little more than an emotional crutch to get teary-eyed when he goes racing. It’s a shame that screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller couldn’t have found a more meaningful role for her or conjured up a second female cast member. 

I guess this is a case of strap yourself in and enjoy the ride while it lasts. And you will enjoy it as Bale sticks his foot through the floor of his Ford GT 40. But I suspect the memory of this will fade long before the celebratory champagne has been washed from your fireproof overalls. 

Dir: James Mangold

Scr: Jez Butterworth, John Henry Butterworth, Jason Keller

Starring: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Joe Bernthal, Caitriona Balfe, Tracy Letts

Prd: Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping, James Mangold

DOP: Phedon Papamichael

Music: Marco Beltrami, Buck Sanders

Country: USA

Year: 2019

Runtime: 153 minutes

Le Mans ’66 is in UK cinemas now

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