How do you turn a film about a competition between two of the most iconic car brands (Ford and Ferrari) into a compelling drama, perfectly constructed for the awards season? You drill down and find the human characters at the core of a corporate squabble. Le Mans ’66 follows Ford Motors' attempts in the 60s to upend the world of competitive racing and beat reigning champions Ferrari in the infamous 24 hour race. They task Carroll Shelby to build them a car, and he in turn brings the brilliant-but-difficult Ken Miles on board as his right-hand man. It all comes together to make one of the best films about racing, and an autumnal must see.
The cast here strengthen a story that at times threatens to be on the dry side (Le Mans ’66 is essentially an advert for the ingenuity of American businesses). Tracy Letts as Henry Ford II steals every scene he’s in, his larger than life persona giving the film many of its funnier moments. Without Letts, the corporate shenanigans may very well have been just Mad Men-lite. But the film really belongs to Matt Damon and Christian Bale, each bringing their bountiful charisma to prickly, surprisingly complicated roles. They’re likeable, three dimensional figures that keep the audience on board whilst Le Mans ’66 weaves towards its climax.
Director James Mangold feels a talent often overlooked, as he produces consistently high quality genre fare (Logan, 3:10 to Yuma, Identity) rarely elevated to awards contention. Yet Le Mans ’66 may very well nab the talent another Oscar nomination. In lesser hands this would be a predictable drama, only for middle aged dads escaping to the cinema on a Sunday afternoon. But Mangold cranks up the tension whilst giving the film room for some emotional heft, exploring masculinity on a number of levels (in the workplace, between father-and-son and in friendship). And whenever Le Mans ’66 reaches a racetrack it sings, becoming a genuinely brilliant watch. Mangold, aided by sensational, electrifying cinematography from Phedon Papamichael, crafts some of the finest race sequences in cinematic history. As the narrative builds to the titular race, audiences will find them on the edge of their seat, cheering the central duo on. And if the film slightly overstays its welcome (the perfect ending is achieved 15 minutes before the end), you can forgive it for the clear love it has for the subject matter.
Le Mans ’66 thrills and amuses in equal measure, with director Mangold crafting a drama that fascinatingly finds something positive to say on masculinity. Aided by a trio of fabulous turns (from Damon, Bale and a scene-stealing Letts), it makes for an exceptional technical marvel.
This review was previewed at the London Film Festival, October 2019