LFF 2019: Le Mans '66 Review
There are very few surprises in James Mangold’s new film; a sixties-set racing drama chronicling the historic rivalry between the Ford Motor Company and Ferrari. One expects the roar of engines over opening credits, multiple scenes of men in suits looking down their noses at plucky, unpolished drivers and ending intertitles that explain what happened next.
While all these trademarks of mainstream car cinema are present, there is one surprise in store - just how much fun the Logan director allows us along the way. Le Mans ‘66 is an old-fashioned piece of filmmaking, a Point A-to-Point B underdog story told with thrills, laughs, and heavy application of “sonuvabtich” as a response to everything from a blown gasket to the news that Enzo Ferrari himself just told you to shove it.
The film’s international title of Ford v. Ferrari says it plainly: this is a screenplay that puts perceived American exceptionalism at the forefront and pits it against the red-painted Italian monolith, illustrated in the broadest of strokes. Constantly-furious pit crews and executives jabber and pace in the background while the (mostly) cool-headed Americans stand their ground.
Christian Bale and Matt Damon head-up a respectable cast including Tracy Letts as the ever-bristling Henry Ford II, with supporting roles for Jon Bernthal (with significant dialogue this time, in contrast to his other recent roles) and Josh Lucas as a slimy Ford higher-up. Bale - experimenting with a Northern accent - plays British racing legend Ken Miles, and Damon is his friend-come-handler, Carroll Shelby. Shelby is tasked with creating a Ford car capable of defeating Ferrari in the titular 24-hour motor marathon, with Miles as his preferred driver.
While the central rivalry might draw quick comparisons to Rush, the friendship between Shelby and Miles which forms the soft centre of Le Mans ‘66 has more in common with Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Miles (all protruding neck and wizened tortoise smile from Bale) makes the Ford brass nervous, and so Shelby is often left to decide between loyalty to his partner or to the company. He’s been forced out of racing due to heart issues, and sees in Ken another chance at conquering the mythical circuit.
Mangold shoots the track appropriately: lensed by Phedon Papamichael, the lanes and garages of Le Mans are lit by golden hues of sunlight that pop in and out of view from behind cars and flags, and nighttime drives are bathed in a wash of grain. Marco Beltrami’s score alternates between percussion that mimics heavy raindrops on a car bonnet and lone, haunting guitar strums employed in the quiet, engaging moments between Ken and his young son, Peter (Noah Jupe). The father-son dynamic is sweet, but comes at the cost of any substantial screen time for Caitriona Balfe as Mollie Miles.
A likely-fabricated scene in which she takes Ken to task for his sneaking out at night to work on the GT40 is a showcase for the film’s inability to decide whether Mollie is a key player or a nuisance. It also gives an early glimpse at the roaring sound design and delirious thrill of the racing sequences. With the heavily-stylised bombastics of Rush and the digitally-enhanced action of The Fast and Furious series still in recent memory, what a joy to see extended, exhilarating vehicular action accomplished with a minimal reliance on CGI.
Even if you’re aware of the outcome (the intended audience certainly will be), it manages to frighten and delight in equal measure, the 150-minute run-time rushing by in a blur of burnt rubber. Quite a feat for a film that will be largely discovered on blu-ray as an obligatory Father’s Day present for the next five years.
Le Mans ‘66 premieres as a Headline Gala at the London Film Festival on October 10th and opens in UK cinemas on November 15th