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There’s a noticeable shortage of great racing movies. Asif Kapadia’s F1 documentary Senna and Ron Howard’s criminally underrated Rush are the only two that spring to mind. But Le Mans ’66 (or Ford v Ferrari to give it the more entertaining title) may have just entered pole position in the racing movie conversation.
American car designer and former Le Mans champion Caroll Shelby (Damon) recruits his old friend and driver Ken Miles (Bale) to help build a Ford racecar to challenge Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966.
Any decent racing movie obviously needs great racing set-pieces, and Le Mans ’66 has them by the truckload. Through a combination of clever camera work, sharp editing and crunchy sound design, James Mangold lets you experience being behind the wheel with the drivers. You feel every screech, jolt and turn of the cars as they whip around corners at breakneck speed. The sequences are genuinely exhilarating and demand a platform on the big screen.
The real heart of the story comes from the charming love-hate relationship between Shelby and Miles. The pair are almost always on the verge of beating on each other, which comes to fruition in some entertaining ways. However, the two also respect and admire one another. Christian Bale leans fully into the wackiness of Miles. His accent seems to do a few laps of the midlands, traversing from thick Brummie to sounding like Wallace as he screams for a cup of tea as he skids into the pit stop. He’s very over the top, but it’s never to the detriment of his character. But I would suggest the plaudits should go to Matt Damon, who is continually grappling with inner turmoil while trying to mediate everyone else’s happiness. He is jovial and charismatic, while also managing to sell the moments of real emotion that the film stretches for in its climax.
What’s perhaps most impressive is how accessible the film is. Even as someone who knows nothing about cars or motorsports, throughout the film, I was fully engaged. It embraces the technical aspects of the endeavour without ever being bogged down in them. The film is also a lot funnier than you might expect. Ken’s interactions with the corporate heads of Ford, played by a suitably snotty Josh Lucas, were comical. While Tracy Letts’ Henry Ford II getting more than he bargained for, when he agrees to take a test ride in the race car, was wildly amusing.
This film is designed to play well to a crowd, and it certainly did in my packed out, Friday night screening.
My only complaint is a minor one. There’s a thread about the ‘out of body experience’ achieved at ‘7’000 revs’, which is an interesting idea that gets lost in the shuffle of exciting moments. The film flirts with the concept a few times but never gives it the in-depth exploration it needs to stick the landing. But the film deserves credit for attempting to tackle broader themes, and its presentation of corporate greed and interference, which seems purposefully reminiscent of the Disney / Fox merger, are handled well.
Le Mans ’66 is a thoroughly entertaining film. Technically well made, with plenty of humour and tension throughout. This film will be ‘Your Dad’s favourite movie of 2019’, in the best possible way.