Tired of playing second fiddle to the glamorous cars produced by Ferrari, and of the general consensus that cars made by his company are ugly and boring, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) enlists car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a former driver who once won big at Le Mans but had to quit due to health problems, to build a car that will beat the feared Ferrari team at the 24 hour race at Le Mans, with Shelby enlisting the best and most naturally knowledgeable driver for the job, the brash and outspoken “rough diamond” Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Shelby and Miles work tirelessly to build Ford’s GT40 that will hopefully triumph in the upcoming challenge but they are hindered by the persistent interference of the Ford executives, most prominently Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), so with the deadline looming and with several production problems cropping up, can the underdogs successfully trounce the seemingly unbeatable Italian team?
Although I’m the furthest thing from a car enthusiast you can get, with the opinion that Formula One is one of the most boring and nonsensical things you could watch on TV, I got on really well with this film; acclaimed director James Mangold has worked his magic with the racing genre and under his stewardship, he makes Le Mans ’66 (or Ford vs. Ferrari) an absorbing and enlightening film, aided by impressive cinematography, a good script, and several fine performances.
With this being a racing film, having several exhilarating race sequences that entertain and thrill is essential and in this regard, Le Mans ’66 doesn’t disappoint as the racing scenes are impressively staged and they will surely provide cinemagoers with all the necessary chills and thrills they came for; captured by Phedon Papamichael’s appealing cinematography, the film treats us to several high octane driving scenes and while those found in the first half of the film are certainly impressive, it’s the pivotal race at Le Mans that proves to be the main attraction and, after all the build up and anticipation, the final showstopping race is remarkably tense and nail-biting. It’s made especially exciting when the weather takes a turn for the worse and the parts of the race that take place in the dead of night when the rain is falling, conditions where drivers struggle to see what’s right in front of them, are especially intense and will surely get audiences on the edge of their seats. With well respected hits like Walk the Line and Logan already under his belt, James Mangold directs this large scale film really well as he delivers the goods in the “action” sequences, he makes sure the film looks as sleek as possible, and he keeps the film moving at a respectable pace and even though the film is on the long side and it could very well have been made shorter, the final runtime clocking in at around 2 1/2 hours, Mangold manages to keep things interesting and entertaining throughout.
The writing also works well because it manages to tell an interesting story, making the “behind the scenes” business of professional racing accessible and informative to newbies and novices like myself – people like me who didn’t even know there were 24 hour races! While the film could have explained the “rules” of the race in greater detail (though this would surely have been difficult and I guess the film wouldn’t want to spoon feed the information to the uninformed members of the audience), the script manages to be enlightening and interesting as it explores the bitter rivalries that the automobile moguls held and it teaches us a little about what goes into making a race car, what problems can arise, and perhaps most prominently, it shows us how the company bigwigs can interfere and make silly, boneheaded decisions that hinder the team trying to win the race. Overall, it’s a well written and engrossing script that attempts to be lighthearted as well as dramatic but as a bona fide underdog story (the final race being reminiscent of something like Cars, in my opinion), the finale is pretty predictable and there are a few cheesy and oversentimental moments/lines scattered throughout, such as the speech about “the perfect lap” and the late night visit to the track, on the night before the big race.
The film has several good performances and in the leading roles, Matt Damon is sturdy as Carroll Shelby as he believably comes across as a character who is determined to lead Ford to victory and who is prepared to “think outside the box” and do whatever he can to combat the suits’ idiotic decisions, expressing annoyance at their shortsightedness and showing sincere respect for Ken (joking around and having “frenemy” banter with him here and there), and Christian Bale is very entertaining and energetic as expert racer Ken Miles, bringing the film to life with his distinctive accent and physicality (once again losing loads of weight for this role) and leaving us in no doubt that he believes he can win the race and he shows his character’s determination, grit, natural talent and heart admirably well. In supporting roles, Tracy Letts often steals scenes in his commanding role of the gruff and authoritative Henry Ford II, Jon Bernthal gets plenty of screen time (for a change!) and is great to watch as the supportive and reasonable Ford exec Lee Iacocca, Josh Lucas is wonderfully smug and slimy as the intrusive Leo Beebe, the man who often gets in the way and prevents Carroll and Ken from accomplishing their task, Caitriona Balfe is a cut above the average “wife role”, especially in a scene where she purposefully drives dangerously in order to squeeze the truth out of Ken, but Noah Jupe is miscast as Ken’s son because he doesn’t emote properly and his acting is too forced and awkward.