The highly anticipated movie of the 1966 Le Mans race could easily have made big errors when its telling of its central story.
Motor racing fans will already be aware of the central story. Indeed, general car fans might as well, with James May doing a fascinating piece for The Grand Tour exploring the subject of Ford’s progression from no marks to 4 straight Le Mans race wins in the late 1960s, and the key story of Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles in achieving this ambition.
This is naturally a film that has a balance to strike, between dramatizing a story where a decent group of its ideal audience base will already be familiar with the story while also trying to present it to a more mainstream audience potentially seduced by its big name leads and showy production.
Doing so therefore requires cinematic dexterity, which director James Mangold does well to provide. Some have argued the visions he puts together also serves as an analogy for making movies while battling committees seemingly going out of their way to keep things safe, which is an intriguing enough premise but one that feels more like an extra thought that comes out of analysing the piece.
While the story has a few initial scenes with its main characters Shelby (Matt Damon) and Miles (Christian Bale), its main starting impetus comes from scenes of boardrooms in the Ford Motor Company. Trying to improve their image and sales, they initially try to buy Ferrari to help make Ford look sexy, but after being beaten to the deal by rival company Fiat, decide instead to try and beat them in the 24 hour of Le Mans race.
Shelby is depicted as struggling with his health following the end of his racing career. But while trying to settle into civilian life, he is approached by Ford executive Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal). Iacocca has received approval from Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) to do whatever it takes to build a race winner and tries to get Shelby to help build this.
Shelby identifies Miles as his number 1 guy to help build and drive the car, inspired by an incident at a previous race where a petulant Miles still won the race. Initially, he is unconvinced by Shelby’s suggestion, but is ultimately persuaded to come on board.
The film goes through the trials and tribulations of trying to get a winning package. A lot of this include the fractious relationship at times between Miles and Ford, who in this sense is personified by senior vice president Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas). This is particularly noted in the depiction of the 1964 race, where we follow Miles being left behind in Shelby’s factory while the Ford cars sent to France fail to finish.
It is no exaggeration to say that Shelby and Miles are the film’s engine. The duo are in the majority of the scenes, and both are engaging performances. The two are particularly good when they double up together, providing a fine contrast in emotions between the more optimistic Shelby and more blunt Miles.
Miles also has decent double acts when his wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) and son Peter (Noah Jupe) come on screen.
The corporate bigwigs are a bit more of a sideshow alongside, though they do have their moments. The one we see the most is Bernthal as Iacocca, who tries to provide support. Letts’ Ford II is engaging when he appears as the overall director, while Lucas provides a compelling antagonist. Indeed, its arguable he’s a better villain than that of Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone), who is not there between the initial takeover scenes and part of the sequence at Le Mans. For all that the film is titled Ford v Ferrari in other territories, this is very much a film concerned with the American side of the battle.
The racing itself is very well choreographed. It would be easy for it to feel a bit roughly done but the way it is shot and looks is done in a way that provides a suitably fitting intensity. It is full throttle stuff even in just the initial testing and smaller races. When everything makes it to France, everything is turned up a gear.
The film mostly hums along nicely, although not everything is smooth sailing. There are moments before the racing sequences that stick to sport movie cliché, and that could be better being shorter. This is a film that tops the bum-numbing 2 1/2 hour mark, and some of the scenes in the early phase can feel like they just end up duplicating each other. It also feels like the final scenes of the movie feel strangely at odds with the film before it, even if they follow the real events that transpired.
Nevertheless, the overall whole of Le Mans ’66 (or Ford v Ferrari if this was the release title in your territory) is satisfying enough. It has a suitably entertaining odd-couple dynamic, a few cheeky digs at corporate cinema culture and some fantastically intense racing sequences. As an overall whole, it works, and has an efficient streak that does just enough to get the story working nicely on the big screen.