The sports film has always been a difficult prospect in Hollywood – how do you make a film that feels genuine to the sports and sportspeople it depicts, but is still accessible for a wide audience? One answer is to focus on the personalities, and it is personality that drives (no pun intended) Le Mans ’66. It boasts two incredibly strong lead performances and is an enjoyable foray into the world of motor racing, even if it is a touch too long and tends towards cliché.
In 1963, Enzo Ferrari is approached by the Ford Motor Company about a possible buyout, but these talks are cut off by Ferrari, upset when he realises that the purchase included ownership of his dominant racing team. Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) is furious at being rebuffed, and orders his racing division to build a car that will end Ferrari’s dominance of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. He assembles a crack team led by the American automotive designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), who brings the fearless and confrontational British driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) on-board. The duo battle corporate interference, the limits of technology and their own personal demons as they attempt to build a race car capable of defeating the legendary Italian company.
Damon and Bale really bounce off each other on screen, with Damon’s easy everyman charm a nice contrast to Bale’s maverick Brummie
Despite the narrative focusing on racing, the story is really a buddy movie between Shelby and Miles. Damon and Bale really bounce off each other on screen, with Damon’s easy everyman charm a nice contrast to Bale’s maverick Brummie, who provides a lot of the laughs through his snarky comments. They’re supported ably by a fine cast, including Jon Bernthal as a Ford executive who secretly backs Shelby, and Letts as a hammy Ford who is half-businessman, half-son living in the shadow of his father. The emotional heart, meanwhile, is provided by Catriona Balfe and Noah Jupe as Miles’ wife and son.
Director James Mangold (last known for the phenomenal Logan) helms Le Mans ’66, and the film looks absolutely stunning – particular kudos must go to the racing sequences, which mostly avoid CGI and really conjure up a sense of danger and excitement. These set pieces are the highlights of the film and, coupled with Marco Beltrami’s pulsing score, you really get into the thrill of the race. Really, the only issue is that for all of the narrative build-up about the rivalry with Ferrari, they rarely feature, seeming a minimal part of the story when Enzo Ferrari’s dismissal of Ford is established as the entire crux.
If you’re not a motor fan, you may find your attention slipping in some of the more motor-heavy aspects of the film
As enjoyable as Le Mans ’66 is, it’s certainly not perfect. The movie is long at two and a half hours, and it takes a while to get going – a little bit of trimming would have been appreciated. If you’re not a motor fan, you may find your attention slipping in some of the more motor-heavy aspects of the film, and it makes the discussion about a mythical state of euphoria that exists beyond 7000rpm feel a little cheesy. It also features Josh Lucas as Leo Beebe, playing an unnecessarily large villain role in a film that doesn’t really need a villain – his character seems to be driven by an incredible amount of spite over what is essentially a minor issue – and it completely omits the mention of Miles’ co-driver, who was equally as important in the success of the team.
Le Mans ’66 is a great tale and the film gets a long way by banking on the magnetism of its two stars. But, much like the Ford cars in the early parts of the film, a little bit of refining could have made this an essential experience.