Le Mans ’66 (also known as Ford v. Ferrari) is a testament to how solid film-making craftsmanship and finely tuned acting can elevate a well-worn, formulaic narrative.
The film is a dramatisation of how legendary car designer Caroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) worked together at the behest of the Ford Motor Company to break Ferrari’s winning streak at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Even if you don’t know how the real story played out, working knowledge of sports biopics will give you everything you need to figure it out. Le Mans ’66 is entirely predictable, but that doesn’t get in the way of how utterly thrilling it is to watch.
Director James Mangold brings a level of compelling energy and sturdy competence that reminds you why formulas endure the test of the time.
As Shelby, Miles and their team of designers and engineers work to beat Ferrari, they face two great challenges. The first is the purely mechanical challenge of building a car fast and durable enough to compete with the absolute best.
The second is the corporate challenge – pressure from Ford executives, whose constant meddling gets in the way of accomplishing the very goal they’ve set out to do. The two-pronged assault on our characters maintains a steady amount of personal and professional stakes.
The wiry Ken Miles is one of the best race car drivers around, but he’s not exactly a people person. His demeanor puts him at odds with Ford executives, who would rather have a more clean-cut, easy-going driver be the poster boy of their victory at Le Mans.
Shelby knows that Ken Miles is the right man for the job and has to use his salesmanship to run circles around the Ford executives that would happily see Miles gone. It doesn’t always work, which puts a strain on the pair’s friendship.
Two of the film’s most memorable moments involve Shelby using gloriously high-risk strategies to turn the tables on Ford. I was grinning from ear to ear when he managed to spin a resounding defeat into a big win, even having the sheer gall to say ‘You’re welcome’.
Damon’s affable charisma is a great fit for the role, but he also brings a tenacity to the character that works really well. Bale’s take on Miles is that of a consummate professional, who doesn’t try to hide his indignation for the way the game is played outside of the racing track.
The pair’s excellent performances and shining personalities are a big part of Le Mans ’66 appeal.
The other is, of course, the actual racing. Expect to be white-knuckling it through the tense and exciting automobile action sequences. They’re complemented by a score that’s smart enough to keep the roar of the engines front and centre.
There are times when the formula becomes too overwhelming. An early scene where a character bluntly declares that Miles is good but tough to work with is unintentionally hilarious in the way it lampshades the familiar archetype.
A later scene where Miles has a quiet moment with his son and muses about ‘the perfect lap’ feels far too much like a manufactured emotional beat rather than a sincere exchange.
I am happy to report that Jon Bernthal does not set a new record for least amount of screen time, and, in fact, has a decent, if still minor supporting role.
I also appreciated that Le Mans ’66 goes on a bit longer than I expected. There’s a moment right after the titular race which would have been a perfect stopping point. One that’s followed by the traditional ‘what happened to them/where are they now’ titles accompanying photos of the real people.
Instead, Le Mans ’66 has a lengthy epilogue that I feel is more respectful to the story the film dramatizes. That, combined with the slower beginning, which sets up the reason for the rivalry between Ford and Ferrari, stretches the film to a two and a half hour runtime – but I think it was the right call.
Le Mans ’66 races on a very familiar track, but does so with enough energy, intensity and sheer craftsmanship to make it an unforgettable ride.
Le Mans ’66 releases November 15th.