After receiving widespread acclaim for his direction of Logan, James Mangold’s return with Le Mans ’66 (titled Ford v Ferrari in North America) once again demonstrates his ability to evoke awe and adrenaline while largely avoiding the cringes and eye rolls that tend to plague petrolhead pictures.
Tasked with breaking Ferrari’s long-running domination of the 24 Hours of Le Mans race, the duo of designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) are the film’s key pairing. The savvier Texan Shelby works to shield Miles’ quirky British inventiveness from restrictive influences, be they finicky rules and regulations or corporate pressures from an organisation who do not regard Miles as a “Ford man”.
The immensely likeable performances from both Bale and Damon form the film’s bedrock, but in the same way as the Ford GT40’s success was owed to a vast team of engineers, the supporting cast deliver in spades. The growing insecurity of Henry Ford II, a figure whose sizeable ambitions are defined by a struggle to step out of his father’s shadow, is captured excellently by Tracy Letts, while Caitriona Balfe injects real warmth into the role of Miles’ wife Mollie.
Several rather pantomime-esque contrasts drive the film’s narrative, with the battle for brand supremacy ultimately boiling down to a clash of egos between the brash Ford and the suave Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone). More engaging are the efforts of Miles and Shelby to outfox the persistent villainous scheming of corporate stooge Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas).
The film’s overriding focus on sheer enjoyment and adrenaline inevitably creates pitfalls, mostly where our disbelief is stretched just that little bit too far. A celebration of racing occasionally verges into car chase cliché territory. Motorsport aficionados will be unimpressed by the idea that an intense moment of side-by-side racing (inevitably accompanied by a drivers’ side-on staring competition) can be solved by one driver simply remembering that he’s got another gear to kick the car into. History is occasionally sacrificed to storytelling demands, most notably in ignoring Miles’ participation in the 1965 race entirely.
With this in mind, the film is best regarded as being centred on the interplay of strong personalities in an immensely demanding environment, rather than a pure celebration of all things automotive. Many of the best moments of Le Mans ’66 are very human, as the tension of operating at their very limit gets the better of the cast. Miles’ whimsical attempts to pass off their car’s damaged windscreen as an aerodynamic improvement are a comedic highlight, while Mollie’s outburst at her husband’s secrecy delivers a jolt to those expecting her to remain in the background of the story.
Of course, this is not to ignore the moments of joy that the racing itself produces. The sound design has an exceptional ability to make us feel every gear change, and Phedon Papamichael’s stunning cinematography captures the hair-raising feeling of roaring down the Mulsanne straight after 24 hours of automotive wreckage. But ultimately it’s the biopic element of Le Mans ’66 that cements it as one of 2019’s most consistently enjoyable pictures.
Image: Alessandro Prada via Flickr