It’s strange the way cinema can reel you in to subjects that would normally leave you as cold as the proverbial stone. To me, the idea of watching a real-life 24-hour sports car endurance race rates only slightly higher than listening to the collected speeches of Nigel Farage. But Le Mans ’66 actually manages to engage me – indeed, in places, it has me perched on the edge of my seat, holding my breath and crossing my fingers.
This based-on-real-events movie, scripted by Jez Butterworth (among others) and directed by James Mangold, focuses on the rivalry between the Ford Motor Company and Ferrari in the mid 1960s. It culminates in the famous racing event of the title. (In America, the film is known as Ford vs Ferrari, which – to my mind – feels much more on the button, but we’ll let that one go.)
Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is a former racing driver, reluctantly forced to seek out a safer occupation (sports car salesman) because of a dangerous heart condition. He is close friends with another driver, Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a cantankerous, tea-swilling Brummie, who – once behind the wheel of a motor car – transforms into an invincible force. Meanwhile, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) is fed up with his cars being regarded as dull. He starts to think about taking on Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) at the sport the latter dominates, with particular regard to the world’s most gruelling race, Le Mans. Shelby is approached to helm the project, but his choice of Miles as his head driver ruffles a few feathers, not least those belonging to Leo Beebe (Josh Miles), a character so oleaginous, he virtually leaves a trail of slime behind him.
The titular racing event beckons, but there’s a lot of work to be done before Shelby and Miles can even get to the starting line, and most of their problems originate from the interfence of ‘The Suits’ who run Ford.
There are plenty of things in this film’s favour – not least a dazzling turn from Bale, who offers us one of the few truly sympathetic characters in this story. Damon gets the trickier role as the man who has to bottle up his raging inner demons as he tries to maintain the status quo between Miles and his image-obsessed employers. This is the 1960s and it’s still very much a man’s world, so there’s some major league dick-swinging going on from most of the players. Catriona Balfe is therefore a welcome presence as Miles’ wife, Mollie, and young Noah Jupe offers yet another lovely performance as his hero-worshipping son, Peter. But there are perhaps too many scenes where male characters in business suits stubbornly assert themselves, because… well, because they think they know best.
And… with a running time of two hours and thirty-two minutes, it’s hard to prevent the motor racing sequences from feeling a little bit like an endurance test for the audience. It doesn’t matter how brilliantly they are filmed – and trust me, they are – it’s sobering to emerge from the lengthy onslaught of Daytona ’66 only to realise that the film still hasn’t reached the climactic event after which it’s been named. How much punchier would this be if the running time came in at under two hours?
Still, petrolheads are going to have an absolute field day here – and a quick Google search assures me that the catalogue of awful decisions that are arbitarily thrown at Ken Miles really did happen as depicted here. Little wonder he was so cantankerous!
And, if a committed pedestrian like me can emerge from Le Mans ’66 feeling entertained, I’m pretty sure that plenty of others will too.