Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) is a man haunted by legacy. Eclipsed by his industrialist father, he wants to change the image of the Ford Motor company. Marketing guru Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) thinks he has the answer: win the prestigious 24 hours of Le Mans car race.
However, this is not so easily done. With the race firmly in the grip of Enzo Ferrari whose cars win every year, Ford are merely passengers when it comes building race cars. Yet, by enlisting the last American to win the race, Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), Ford might have a shot, but they only have 90 days to overturn a lifetime of Italian passion…
… allows its track footage and melodrama to race side by side so that the real blood-sport of envy can be seen.
Le Mans ’66 is an engaging real-life drama that gets it right for a change. Whereas many other “driving films” have bent earthly physics for thrills like Fast & Furious and chase movies like Baby Driver have slickly disappointed, Le Mans ’66 is rooted in reality. It happened, it’s not afraid to be technical and it’s also damn fun to watch while it’s about it.
Pairing up Matt Damon as compromised racing hero Carroll Shelby and Christian Bale as intransigent driver Ken Miles, the film’s great chemistry isn’t just under the bonnet. With Damon’s submerged sense of injustice and Bale’s Brummie-laced home truths, a winning formula is quickly forged. However, the real trick that remains for their characters is whether they can get the suits at Ford to buy it?
However, before all of that chicanery can start, Ken has more domestic hurdles to deal with. Kept in check by his no-nonsense wife (a superb Caitriona Balfe), her role as Mollie may not pass the Bechdel test but she’s certainly got bubbles. Nowhere is this better seen than when she watches Batman and Jason Bourne hilariously smack the hell out of each other like two distressed geese. In this respect, and operating at the very heart of the movie, it’s actually her marriage that keeps things glued to the track.
Free from any distressing red flags, this is a film that allows its track footage and melodrama to race side by side so that the real blood-sport of envy can be seen. Ford hates Ferrari and Ferrari hates Ford and in this antipathy, the script is allowed plenty of room for manoeuvre. Where death is routine and there can be no margin for error, Le Mans ’66 is further elevated by tyre-hugging camerawork and a deafening soundtrack that’ll leave you in no doubt as to the risks being taken.
By pivoting the competing priorities of the boardroom and the race track, director James Mangold’s latest deftly walks the line between entertainment and breathless exhilaration. Surprisingly funny and sanguine about their chances, the characters in Le Mans ’66 mercifully aren’t the patriotic flag-wavers they could have been. In a strong film that’ll turn petrol heads everywhere, this is actually the dead-pan, full-throttle, widescreen assault it needed to be.
Having wisely discarded the earlier pairing of Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise, Le Mans 66 is a race win that you can buy. Tickets are available and I hope your engine has been duly started.