Starring: Matt Damon (The Martian), Christian Bale (The Fighter), Caitriona Balfe (Money Monster), Jon Bernthal (The Punisher), Tracy Letts (Lady Bird), Josh Lucas (Hulk), Noah Jupe (Wonder), Remo Girone (Live by Night), Ray McKinnon (Mud)
Director: James Mangold (Logan)
Writers: Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow) and Jason Keller (Machine Gun Preacher)
Runtime: 2 hours 32 minutes
Release Date: 15th November (US, UK)
It’s a bizarre phenomenon that, as disparate the fandoms of film and sport often are, we all love a good sports film. There are a lot of reasons as to why, but ultimately it comes down to sport inherently having facets that also lend themselves to good storytelling: tension, motivations, conflict, structure, ticking clocks, etc. Out of all sporting fields, motorsport’s speed and dynamism especially lends itself to cinema, and Le Mans ’66 (or Ford v Ferrari as it is titled in the States) itself can easily be seen as a metaphor for the filmmaking process: a team of highly talented but disparate craftsmen, under the watchful eye of money-driven businessmen, all trying to work together to create one perfect product. From whatever lens you view it through, this is a motorsports movie that delivers on everything you could want out of one, providing both the adrenaline and detail car lovers crave and the storytelling and craftsmanship cinephiles need to be absorbed into this world.
Set right in the heat of the rivalry between Ford and Ferrari between 1963 and 1966, Le Mans ’66 is a car fanatic’s dream movie whilst also being accessible to the neophytes in the audience, and may well end up creating new fans of car culture in the process. It seeps itself in the lingo and history of its subject matter and makes it all palatable to anyone who doesn’t know their rev counter from their fuel gage, but as passionate as the film is for cars it is ultimately a story about the people who build and drive them. The pressure is palpable from the opening moments with the stakes constantly rising as interpersonal conflict and egos threaten the heart of the sport, yet it also expertly cuts the tension with whipsmart dialogue and a biting sense of humour. The film is long and feels it, but it’s one of those rare epics that is so enveloping and paced so well that it never becomes a problem; one could easily just let the story keep rolling on and on and people would still keep watching. There is not a wasted moment in Le Mans ’66, and so it earns its lengthy runtime and uses it to tell a barrier-crossing story about friendship, loyalty, and putting aside petty disagreements for the love of the game.
While some may argue about who the true main character of Le Mans ’66 is, it’s clearly a two-hander picture with Matt Damon and Christian Bale having equal claim to top billing. As Ken Miles, Bale is easily the far more dynamic and entertaining lead, with the character’s coarse honesty and uniquely British sense of humour making him an unpredictable and relatable rebel hero. Bale commits to the role with a lot of heart, balancing out Miles’ temper and cheek with a genuine love for both the sport and his family, even when those two come into conflict. It’s easily his best work since The Fighter and should be a shoe-in on many a ballot this awards season. Damon’s Carroll Shelby acts as something of a cooling point between Miles and the Ford executives, bringing reason and expertise to a conflict driven by ego, and though he’s the more straight-laced hero he certainly has his moments of mischief and heart. His chemistry with Bale is charming and tactful, and the love-hate relationship that forms between engineer and driver feels as genuine as any athlete-coach relationship in a typical sports drama.
Caitriona Balfe is something of a hidden weapon as Miles’ supportive but feisty wife Mollie, briefly stealing the whole movie in an extended argument scene, and Noah Jupe is the right balance of precocious and sincere as his son Peter even when his British accent starts teetering into parody. Jon Bernthal is great as Ford VP Lee Iacocca but somewhat fades into the background halfway through, whilst Tracy Letts is a tremendous piece of casting as Henry Ford II. Perhaps what may end up being the most contentious character is Josh Lucas as conniving Ford executive Leo Beebe. Putting aside historical accuracy, the character often threatens to lurch over into OTT territory, but Lucas is so adept at playing this type of role and the film frames the feud between him and Miles in a context that ultimately balances that out, though your mileage may vary.
The driving in Le Mans ’66 is far from the usual speed demon car chases of blockbuster cinema, as the titular event and associated races Sebring and Daytona are as much about endurance and efficiency as they are about who can make the wheels go vroom-vroom the fastest. Director James Mangold and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael expertly capture both in the intense and drama-fuelled racing sequences, which focus as much on the drivers’ physical and mental wellbeing as the speed and condition of the vehicles. The period detail is accurate but subtle, allowing the timeless drama to take centre stage, aided by great production and costume design. The editing is sharp and focused, and both the period soundtrack choices and the score by Marco Beltrami perfectly accentuate every moment.
Le Mans ’66 is an absolute gem of a sports film that crosses boundaries to both entertain and enlighten. It’s a captivating and perennial tale of stamina and standing your ground in a fast-paced world, bolstered by yet another career-best performance from Christian Bale. It makes a perfect companion piece to Ron Howard’s Formula 1 drama Rush, contrasting that film’s tale of rivalry-turned-friendship with its own story about two men staying loyal to each other in the face of circumstances that try to make them enemies. All in all, it is destined to not only become the new favourite film of dads the world over, but also remind audiences that there’s far more to sport than just “who can do this thing the best?”
FINAL VERDICT: 9.5/10