Dir: James Mangold. Starring: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Caitriona Balfe, Jon Bernthal, Tracy Letts, Josh Lucas, Noah Jupe. 12A cert, 152 mins.
It might actually be impossible to make a film about race car driving that isn’t glamorous, especially if it’s set in the past. Think back to Jackie Stewart spraying jets of champagne over a magnificently dressed French crowd. Or to Steve McQueen in his crisp white overalls in Lee H Katzin’s Le Mans, cigarette dangling insouciantly from his mouth. Fast cars are sexy. Director James Mangold, in making Le Mans ’66 (titled Ford v Ferrari in the US), doesn’t actively resist the idea. But, as superficially flashy as his film may seem, he’s constantly searching for ways to question or subvert what we’re seeing.
It’s 1966 and The Ford Motor Company is in a financial slump. As Jon Bernthal’s Don Draper-like ad exec explains, the incoming baby boomer generation want something more than practicality. They want an image. “James Bond does not drive a Ford,” he explains, to which Tracy Lett’s Henry Ford II, the company’s president, retorts: “Because he’s a degenerate.” A proposal is made: Ford needs to be associated with the idea of victory, so Ford should be getting into the racing business. An attempt to buy Ferrari, the winners of 24 Hours of Le Mans for the past five years, is scuttled. And so two men, Caroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and Ken Miles (Christian Bale), are hired to design and test a car that could finally beat Ferrari on the track.
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Le Mans ‘66 is, for the most part, an exploration of this odd couple relationship. Miles has a fiery temper and a superiority complex – he’ll happily look Ford’s top brass in the eye and call their Mustang “a pile of lard”. On paper, the Brummie-accented, tea-slurping maverick who yells “more of that my girl! Giddy up!” to his own car could easily have come off like a parody. But Bale has never committed less than every fibre of his being to a role; it’s not about to change now. He finds every shade of Miles’s personality that could possibly exist. Shelby, meanwhile, is the warm and (largely) cooperative Texan who’ll flash a big smile and assure you everything’s just dandy. It’s a natural fit for Damon.
Written by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Kellerheavily, the script is unsurprisingly fascinated with ideas of masculinity. The only reason Ford wants one of his cars on the starting line is because Enzio Ferrari dissed him with the line: “You’re not Henry Ford. You’re Henry Ford II.” But is all this worth it just to soothe wounded ego? Mangold ensures that the spectre of death lingers in every frame. The racing scenes are more anxiety-inducing than they are thrilling, as the camera keeps low to the ground and smashed-up cars careen into view. Not infrequently, they then explode into fireballs. One small miscalculation can not only mark the end of someone’s title chances, but also the end of their life.
In a way, Le Mans ’66 shares a lot in common with last year’s First Man. It’s a portrait of an obsession so great that even death itself is shrugged off as mere collateral damage. There is a similarity, too, between Claire Foy’s Janet Armstrong and Caitriona Balfe’s Mollie, who’s married to Miles. Though both their roles are small, they’re the only ones with the clarity to see that this is little more than just boys tinkering away with their toys. At one point, Mollie pulls up a lawn chair to watch Shelby and Miles tussle in the grass.
Yet the film’s greatest trick is saved for its final reel. For much of its running time, you’d be easily fooled into thinking Mangold had made a grand ode to the American dream. It’s a film about an immigrant worker who, through perseverance and toil, gains the respect of one of the richest men in the country. And then the rug is pulled right out from underneath you. Le Mans ‘66 may relish in the high life, but its final moments feel devastatingly hollow.