Director: James Mangold
Cast: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Caitriona Balfe, Tracy Letts, Josh Lucas, Jon Bernthal, Noah Jupe
Running time: 152 minutes
Like a flash, swanky new sportscar, Le Mans ’66 is an easy sell. Matt Damon and Christian Bale in the front seat of a sun-kissed two-and-a-half hour ride into the world of 1960’s motor racing —whether your automotive tastes lean toward a Chevy or you hum to the purr of a Plymouth, whether it’s Le Mans ’66 or (the far superior) Ford v Ferrari, it’s difficult to stop the heart pumping to the rate of 7,000 rpm at the prospect of James Mangold’s sweeping tale of boys and their (very fast) toys.
The story surrounding the famed mid-60s racing duels between Ford and Ferrari — two of motorsport’s heaviest hitters (and, crucially, lightest weights) — has been doing laps around Hollywood for much longer than the gruelling 24 hours that make up the titular contest. From Michael Mann to Brad Pitt to Tom Cruise, some of film’s very finest have long been rumoured to get this intriguing true story out of first gear. For one reason or another, each of them have been left stalling at the start line.
In the end, its hardly coincidental that director James Mangold should be the one to take the wheel and steer this film through the chequered flag and onto cinema screens. With a flurry of impressively gritty Western films bearing his name — from the underrated 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma to a more mature brand of superhero film in Logan — Mangold’s aptitude for the American Frontier leans perfectly into Le Mans ’66: a story that, at its petrol-soaked heart, has all the hallmarks of a classic, golden age Western.
Gruff heroes, dastardly villains, feverish feuds and untameable, sun-drenched wastelands all take to the grid in a story centred on Carol Shelby (Damon), a renowned racer-turned-automotive designer, and aptly-named maverick British driver Ken Miles (Bale), who team up with Ford in a bid to topple Ferrari’s dominance on the track and, subsequently, their legacy off it. Under the watchful eye of fiery Ford CEO Henry II (Letts) and his band of icy executives, complications and conflictions quickly arise in the Detroit heat. Ford are all about image: they want the fastest car but will do anything to keep the unpredictable, outspoken Miles off the tarmac. Shelby, meanwhile, is convinced the irrefutable, if somewhat reckless brilliance of Miles holds the key to finally dethroning Ferrari.
From a script penned by Jason Keller and brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, the narrative route Le Mans ’66 takes sticks rather rigidly to a road well ridden. Imbued with a warm, stylish visual pallet, Mangold’s patient, if slightly laboured first third meanders into the world of motorsport during a time of heated disputes and legendary rivalries. For anyone other than a seasoned mechanic, the early jargon-heavy dialogue might often feel dense and impenetrable; however, beyond the talk of engines, chassis and braking systems, the film’s true narrative axle hinges on a friction of much more universal and timely resonance: a conflict between the greedy, rich corporate machine and the stubborn, old guard with little more than grease under their fingernails and passion racing through their veins.
Few filmmakers would choose to spend as long as Mangold does away from the track, opting to use large portions of the film’s lengthy run-time not to burn rubber, but instead under hoods and in homes, forging intriguing, if sometimes underdeveloped character relationships. In doing so, Mangold’s motorsport movie steers more towards metaphor, evoking the age-old view that the very best sports films are never really about sport at all.
However, Le Mans ’66‘s allegorical alloys are never as sturdy they hope to be. Its treatment of masculinity — men doing man stuff in a manly manner — feels remarkably rusty and distinctly out of touch with current conversations, while the film’s primary female presence, Miles’ wife Mollie (Balfe), is frustratingly side-lined.
Ultimately, the movie is at its thunderous best when it sheds its narrative weight and takes to Europe and the treacherous French track of its title. Mangold accelerates through the gears as he delivers a pulsating finale of visceral, immersive visuals. In both beating sun and torrential rain, through the dark of night and the light of day, metal crunches as miles mount up, brakes buckle in nail-biting near misses and tires screech round sharp hairpin bends. But while there’s enthralling entertainment in the film’s raucous race sequences, Mangold always keeps things grounded in sobering reality, reminding us of the fragile mortality of man. Even for the most daring of speed demons, death is always just around the corner.
For a film like Le Mans ’66, where so many of its components seem to fit, it feels like a missed opportunity that the risk-taking is minimal and the most intriguing narrative avenues bypassed. For a story about breaking records, Mangold and co. appear on the contrary; seemingly content with coasting down the roads of conventionality. Sometimes, it seems, the thrill of the ride is enough.