Le Mans ’66
There were three main things that drew me to Le Mans ’66 (better known worldwide by the clumsier title of Ford V Ferrari: yeesh). The first was the subject matter. Dedicated readers will remember my love and appreciation for Ron Howard’s Rush back in 2013, which remains one of my very favourite movies of a sporting theme, and easily the best racing film I’d ever seen. Sports movies, to reiterate a previous refrain once again, should never really be about a sport. Motor racing as a fulcrum also provides the opportunity to look at stripped down rivalries operating at extreme conditions, and the dramatic effects such a dangerous profession can have on someone’s life. Easy land to plough basically.
And there is reasons two and three: the director, James Mangold, who delivered cinema’s most mature superhero film ever in the superb Logan just two years ago (forget Joker and give that another watch) and the central cast. I’ll pretty much watch Christian Bale in anything, and I’ll pretty much watch Matt Damon in anything, and putting the two together, actors who, in this stage of their careers, are erring towards the more experimental roles (Vice for Bale, Downsizing for Damon, to name just one example each), seems guaranteed to produce a two-handed masterclass. At least that was the hope, since these things can easily go the other way due to clashing egos and grabs at prominence. Did Le Mans ’66 get away cleanly, or did it get stuck at the start line fiddling with the clutch?
Following a bitter corporate dispute, racing legend Caroll Shelby (Damon) is tasked by automotive CEO Henry Ford (Tracey Letts) with constructing an endurance car capable of breaking Ferrari’s domination of the Le Mans 24 hours race. Shelby can build a car, but he needs someone to drive it: he turns to British racer Ken Miles (Bale), an incendiary character, and together the two aim to create one of the biggest shocks in motor racing history.
Writing this just after coming out of the screening of Le Man ’66 that I caught, I am in two minds. There was much – actually a lot – about the film that I enjoyed quite a lot. The story, the cast, its sense of pacing. But, at the same time, I cannot pretend that I did not feel a bit underwhelmed. Le Mans ’66 has its problems, and I am not entirely convinced that it has the parts to make the greater whole rise above them.
I think the chief problem is the issue of its alternate title, Ford V Ferrari. That moniker indicates that we are about to witness a battle between nations in American and Italy, a battle between philosophies in Ford’s quantity over quality dynamic and Ferrari’s opposite tack, a battle between substance and flash. Le Mans ’66 sets up that battle well enough in its first act. A scene where “the Great Old Man” (Remo Girone) himself dresses down Ford’s VP (a somewhat miscast Jon Bernthal) is great, as Enzo Ferrari utters the searing insult that his Ford’s current boss should remember he “is not Henry Ford, he is Henry Ford II”. Later, “Deuce” is stone-faced at hearing the comment, before declaring that he’s going to beat “that greasy wop”. Here we go, mano a mano.
But then Le Mans ’66 goes off in a different direction, and instead of being the epic story of Ford vs Ferrari, it becomes instead the story of Ford vs Ford, or maybe Ford vs Shelby. The main drama and driving force of the film is not the interesting conflict between the varying motorsport poles represented by Ford and Ferrari, but instead between the suits and the engineers working underneath Henry Ford II. Essentially, Shelby and Miles are drivers and grease monkeys, who go by their gut and the seat of their pants, with little time for computers, data or taking it easy: they are opposed by Ford’s corporate higher-ups, who like pushing paper and making themselves look big, most notably the company’s senior VP, Leo Beebee (Josh Lucas), who fills in an antagonist role past the half hour point, that was really Enzo Ferrari’s to fill.
The depiction of Beebee is apparently a historically dubious thing, going by some comments in the media, and his friends and family may well have cause to cry foul. In the film, Beebee’s meddling results in Miles being dumped for a time before an underperforming Ford bring him back, and whatever conflict the film has for the rest of its running time is primarily driven by Shelby and Beebee bouncing off one another, all leading up to the infamous decisions taken towards the conclusion of the titular race. But to go from the heart-achingly real emotional drama of Logan to this corporate backstabbing is undoubtedly a disappointment.
The problem is that this conflict simply isn’t an interesting as the one set up between the Americans and the Italians. Le Mans ’66 never does enough to make you care, with a narrative structure that hews a bit too close to the basic, complete with montage. It’s like something that Clint Eastwood would direct, bearing some similarity to the thoughts espoused in his Sully, that all these daredevil renegades just need to be left alone by their bosses, who are too obsessed with regulations, safety and a return on investment. When Miles’ pit crew use a mallet to fix a broken door mid-race, while the preening sycophants toady up to Henry Ford II in the corporate box, we’re supposed to see conflict, but it just isn’t there in substance.
A film like Rush understood that such backroom clashes are inherently a bit dull and frustrating, and focuses elsewhere (Daniel Bruhl’s Nika Lauda doesn’t even speak to Enzo Ferrari in that film): we’re here for the driving and the rivalries, and at least in its sections on actual racing, Le Mans ’66 gets it dead right. The film is book-ended by monologues from Damon on the singular nature of driving, and how at a certain rate of RPM’s, the driver comes to learn something intrinsically unique about themselves. While there is a hint that such themes are being introduced in too shallow a fashion to be truly effective, they are at least an example of something better that Le Mans ’66 had to say, by way of explaining how Shelby and Miles put up with all that they did from Ford.
Damon and Bale do good, but not stand-out work. Bale presumably enjoys the chance to use something closer to his actual accent, and is fun as the devil-may-care Miles, whose family interactions – with his worrying wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) and impressionable son Peter (Noah Jupe) – help ground the film with actual consequences for engine burnouts and car crashes.
Damon is at his best when going back and forth with Bale, the two being too good at their craft to let the opportunity pass them by, even if it isn’t exactly Pacino/de Niro. An early scene where they engage verbally that culminates in a thrown wrench, or an embarrassing old man brawl outside Miles’ house later (his wife pulls up a chair to watch) demonstrates the point. In other occasions, when Damon or Bale are placed opposite Lucas or Bernthal, they are less interesting. Perhaps, given the subject matter, it is inevitable that an audience will be more interested in the actual driver, and not the guy giving him instructions, and Bale is the brighter of the two.
The rest of the cast are too ancillary to make a significant impression, excepting maybe Balfe, who has to work with an odd scene where she takes on the guise of a shrieking harpy – real Skylar White territory – who essentially threatens to kill herself and Miles if he won’t admit he’s considering a job with Ford. She’s the only female character, and the film generally is an undoubted testament to the male ego and a certain kind of toxic masculinity (right in line with efforts like Logan or Walk The Line), whether it is in Henry Ford’s revenge-driven efforts to get one over on Ferrari, or the dangerous lengths to which Shelby and Miles will go for personal glory (it will be interesting to one day see a story in this vein with a woman behind the wheel).
Working with frequent collaborator Phedon Papamichael, Mangold has made a racing film that does capture, in a visual sense, the essence of what makes endurance racing such a fascinating sub-genre of the sport. Shots of the Ford factory, of airport race tracks, of detailed garages and pit lanes, are all very well and good, but is is in the racing that Le Mans ’66 really comes to life, in sequences depicting lesser known hot rod races, the curving track of Daytona, or Le Mans itself, this altogether unassuming stretch of what is largely country road, that has somehow managed to become one of the most pivotal parts of motorsport history and legend.
Mangold’s racing perhaps lacks the thrill of Ron Howard, but still manages to get to the heart of endurance racing: less a matter of overtaking your opponent, and more a battle with yourself, and with the car whose brakes could overheat and explode at any moment. The film carries an old school type of energy, like something out of the late-era 1950’s black and white period piece: Mangold likes putting the camera right inside the car and right in the face of Christian Bale. You get to see the strain, the wear and the nerves that eat away at the driver, which is just as dramatic as seeing the car undertake the tight turns at high speed, with the viewer practically vibrating off their seat as the RPM ticker increases.
In the end, Le Mans ’66 is a film that is able to reach a level above disaster on the strength of Bale’s performance – not so much Damon, which is a shame – and on its racing sequences, but that essentially makes it a one man show mixed with a motorsport highlight reel. The promise of its premise gets lost in a very unfulfilling plot-line of grease-monkeys vs marketing executives, that simply was not on the same level of two automobile titans going at it. It falls far enough that parts of it can only be considered a bit boring, something that really is a cardinal sin when you’re talking hot rod race cars. It’s not the best follow-up to the narrative mastery that was Logan, and neither of the two leads will see their careers defined by such roles. Le Mans ’66 is ultimately, and regrettably, forgettable. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of 20th Century Fox).