Le Mans '66 Review
After making a sombre Western out of an X-Men sequel with Logan, a biopic sports drama seems like an unusual turn for director James Mangold. There’s nothing obviously boundary-pushing in Le Mans ’66, which tells a fairly straightforward story that, on the surface, looks as if it could blend into the abundance of other stories about men pushing themselves to the limit in the pursuit of the American dream. However, there’s more than meets eye with his latest release.
The film follows iconic automotive designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale), who built and raced the Ford GT40 in France’s 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans. The engineering team they assemble take on the dominating Ferrari racing team, butting heads with the corporate side of things in their search for the perfect lap. Where this sports drama excels is in its detail, from the engineering minutiae to the nuanced acting.
Bale puts forward a compelling performance that serves as a reminder of how deeply he can embody a character. Everything from his posture, voice and movement is distinctive and side-steps the potential showiness of another weight loss role. Damon plays a more reserved counterpoint to Bale, reliably entertaining but hitting high emotional marks when he needs to. The whole film follows his example, a modest movie that’s not trying to reinvent the wheel even if its characters are. Instead, it elevates what could have been a generic by-the-numbers drama into something wholly satisfying and captivating.
Much like Ken Miles, Le Mans ‘66 comes to life when it climbs behind the wheel. We’re reminded many times of the euphoria these men find in the rumble of the car engine, and the filmmaking is excellent at immersing us in that feeling. The astounding camerawork makes us feel the speed and danger outside of the car, expresses the intense second-to-second decision making in the driving seat, and has you on the edge of your seat as much over a faulty door as an explosion.
Beyond the gorgeous cinematography and immersive driving sequences, there’s some clear themes at work here. Mangold’s film is exploring what could have been trite notions of American exceptionalism and car worship, but he explores them with innovative filmmaking and a clear understanding of the mindset that drives these men. “There’s a point at 7,000 RPMs where everything fades,” Damon’s voice-over spells out, before the film makes sure you feel it. When Shelby tries to find a compromise between their vision of the race and the superficial decisions made by marketing teams, it’s hard not to see how Mangold’s own experiences trying to create art under corporate supervision play in. While the clash between individuality and company men is nothing new, when a movie captures the spirit of the race so well it’s hard to fault it for its earnest philosophising.
Le Mans ’66 is also bolstered by an excellent score and a strong supporting cast - with Jon Bernthal bringing a unique energy to an otherwise sidelined role, and a beautifully understated performance from Ray McKinnon. Caitriona Balfe takes on the role that too often becomes the Wet Blanket Wife to the boundary-pushing hero, but their connection is so believable and their conflicts so free from tropes that it becomes another example of the film’s elevation of genre elements. Their chemistry, as well as that between Damon and Bale, brings some great humour to the mix. The 152 minutes absolutely breeze by, never feeling unwarranted from start to finish.
The Blu-ray special feature is a solitary documentary, but it is fairly comprehensive. Unfortunately, there is no commentary - which is a shame as further details about the process would have been interesting in this particular period context. However, there is plenty of insight from the cast and crew interviews included in the behind-the-scenes footage.
In an eight-part making-of documentary Bringing the Rivalry to Life, we find out about the real men that Damon and Bale portray and the extensive research that went into recreating the era’s cars and style. Make-up, cinematography, costume and set design are all covered, with great attention paid to how they reconstructed era-specific cars with modern materials. The actors also talk about how Mangold worked with them on set, while the director discusses more thematic matters such as his role - with the help of Shelby - in “convinc[ing] corporations to help us make our dreams”.
Mangold reveals he didn’t have a particular love for cars beforehand, but discovered it in the process of capturing real high-speed driving (with some camerawork operating at 120mph). The director said they were trying to capture “the high of being on the road, not the digital simulation of it”. The complex camera rigs they used to immerse the viewer in the practical stunt-driving is impressive, making this hour-long documentary worth a watch for any fans of the film.
They also share some insider knowledge from those close to the real men. Charlie Agapiou, Ken Miles' chief mechanic, speaks about his time on set and the real Ken. Also present is Miles’ son, who discusses his father’s personality and attempts to psyche out other drivers before a race. Like the film, this documentary breezes by and is full of good material - even if it is disappointing that this is effectively the only extra on the Blu-ray.
Ford v. Ferrari (2019)
Dir: james mangold | Cast: Christian Bale, JJ Feild, Jon Bernthal, Matt Damon | Writers: A.J. Baime (based on the book by), James Mangold (screenplay), Jason Keller (screenplay), Jez Butterworth (screenplay), John-Henry Butterworth (screenplay)