Directed by James Mangold. Starring Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Caitriona Balfe, Tracy Letts, Jon Bernthal, Josh Lucas.
The Plot: It’s the 1960s and Ferrari is known as the car du jour, with their brand of super sleek Italian sports cars winning race after race. Ford is more into mass production, building reliable and functional but not sexy cars. Head honcho Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) is approached by executive Lee (Jon Bernthal) with the idea of putting a winning team into the gruelling 24-hour race at Le Mans, France. In order to do that, they’ll need to build a super-fast car that can beat Ferrari’s enviable speed. That’s where Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) comes in. Now retired and a bit burnt out from his days on the track, he’s still got the need for speed. So, he enlists the help of his buddy Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a grease monkey and ace driver with a difficult reputation but who also knows how to push a car to its limits…
The Verdict: Life in the fast lane can see highly competitive men and their machines pushed to the limits as they outdo each other in an attempt to win glory and fame on the rubber-scorched track. Le Mans ’66 is a thrilling real-life tale of such men and their custom-built cars, but with the emphasis more on the glory than the fame. Known as Ford v Ferrari in the US, a title change was necessary to Le Mans ’66 due to copyright issues. However, both titles are reflective of a film that amps up the bristling rivalry but also the (mostly) gentlemanly sportsmanship between the two great car manufacturers as both strive to win the Le Mans race. That’s not all though. It’s also about the respectful friendship between Carroll and Ken, as they both push each other to achieve greater success. That’s before they even start to feel increasing heat from Ford executives, like Leo (Josh Lucas) who doesn’t see Ken as a poster boy for the company’s race team.
James Mangold is a director with his own bumps on the road to success. For every Logan, there’s a The Wolverine. When working with the right material, he’s able to mine it for every bit of character development and make it both entertaining and informative. He’s struck gold with Le Mans ’66. The excellent script by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller posits itself as a sports movie, but there’s as much action off the track as on it. It’s those important interludes between the racing scenes that are crucial to developing the characters and their motivations so that we care about them. They are characters with lots of gears too, with the actors shifting their performances to suit the tempo of each scene. Carroll and Miles have a mutual admiration for each other, but are not above an occasional juvenile punch-up. Carroll is the charming, popular guy who enjoys the limelight. By contrast, Miles is less refined, a maverick who prefers the purring engine of a racing car to dealing with people, especially smarmy Ford executives with their own ideas.
Just like his real-life lead characters, this is where Mangold needs some star power to drive his impressive film over the finish line. Damon and Bale respond by delivering warm, colourful and multi-layered performances. The kind that draw you into the story early on, then deliver one great scene after another before confidently zooming to the finish line without breaking a sweat. That’s the mark of a consistent director – something that Mangold has had difficulty with in the past. Not here anyway. He surrounds his leads with equally strong supporting performances, from Killer Joe playwright and actor Tracy Letts as the bullish but surprisingly emotional big boss to Lucas’ one-track-minded executive who barks orders but doesn’t understand what it means to be behind a wheel at 200mph. They could be viewed as thinly-veiled takes on studio executives, given Mangold’s own studio wranglings in the past. Even Ireland’s own Caitriona Balfe stretches beyond the token wife role to give her character some hidden depth.
Apart from the solid character development on display, the film also delivers on the track with some exhilarating, palm-sweatingly tense race sequences that would make 2013’s Rush look over its shoulder with concern. Mangold pushes that speed demon quality in Ken as he pushes his car to even greater heights, while also delivering the message that it’s as much the driver as the car that makes a winning team. Le Mans ’66 revs it to the max to become an involving character study about the all-encompassing nature of success, the limits of human endurance and what drives people to push further than what has come before. Strap yourselves in and start your engines. Audiences are in for one hell of a ride.