Review: Le Mans ’66

Poster for Le Mans '66, featuring Christian Bale and Matt Damon

****½

The 24 hours of Le Mans: the oldest sports car endurance race ever, one of the most famous races in motor sports, and, to Ford Motor Company in the mid-1960s, the reason young Americans were buying Ferraris. The Italian company had won the race six times in a row between 1960 to 1965, and after founder Enzo Ferrari rejected a Ford takeover, an enraged Henry Ford II was determined to beat the old man at his own game. Enter Carroll Shelby, sports car designer and former professional driver, and his friend Ken Miles, a hotshot British-born racer with a reputation for being ‘difficult’.

It is these two men and their struggle against both Ferrari’s cars and Ford’s suits that lies at the core of Le Mans ’66, simply (or unimaginatively) titled Ford v Ferrari in the States. While this premise may be one that initially turns off non-racing fans, avoiding Le Mans ’66 due to a lack of interest in motor sports would be a mistake, as the film flawlessly manages to weave a compelling character drama that will appeal to a much wider audience than the title may suggest. Far from a simple thread of biopic tropes stringing together a series of high-octane race scenes, the film prioritises the relationships between characters, with the race scenes used sparingly, heightening the tension when they do come. By the time the titular race arrives, we are so invested in Shelby and Miles’ struggle that we desperately want them to win; by the time cars are colliding in front of Miles’ GT40, the tension is so high because the previous two hours have worked to ensure the audience cares about his safety.

Key to generating this empathy, of course, is the actor, and as Ken Miles, Bale gives another stand-out performance, capturing the man in all his human complexity. Sure, he may be difficult to work with (as a certain wrench-throwing incident makes clear early on), but he is also possessed of an admirable dedication, a genuine love for his family, and a certain eccentric charm that can’t fail to endear him to an audience.

Though Bale’s is far and away the best performance, director James Mangold has surrounded him with a stellar supporting cast, featuring Damon, Jon Bernthal, and a slimy Josh Lucas playing the personification of all that is wrong with Ford’s single-mindedly business-first approach. Caitriona Balfe’s Mollie Miles is refreshingly given a more complex role than the two-dimensional doting wife that so often appears in biopics of so-called ‘great men’. Fully able to hold her own in a conversation about cars, she is a fully realised character that can be the supportive spouse while also being open about the needs of herself and her family – and thankfully, is never presented as the ‘nagging wife’ for doing so.

It’s through the careful characterisation of the main cast and the development of their relationships that the film ensures the audience is engaged with the characters before we are asked to care about the racing. But when we are, we do care, and those who came for the aforementioned high-octane race scenes will not be disappointed, as it’s hard to imagine a way in which these racing set pieces could have been more tense or more thrilling. The great stunt driving and dynamic camera work are aided by Bale’s performance, which works to heighten the tension, and diffuse it when necessary with a well-placed “bloody ‘ell!”

A racing biopic with its focus off the track, it’s hard to see if Le Mans ’66 will be able to find an audience. At first glance, it seems too involved with motor sports to attract non-fans, and yet it is not the action-packed blockbuster that fans of car movies may be wishing for. But it would be a real shame if it is not widely seen, as Le Mans ’66 is a film with heart, humour, and charm that will surely grab any viewer that will give it a chance.

Le Mans ’66 opens in UK cinemas on 15th November 2019.