Sunday, 10 November 2019

Review: Le Mans '66

Le Mans '66 (aka Ford v Ferrari*1)
Cert: 12A / 152 mins / Dir. James Mangold / Trailer

With November barely begun the awards-season hopefuls begin to rev their engines, each running down a checklist of inspiration, pathos and over-earnest hand-wringing. Attempting to get an early lead on the other contenders comes James Mangold’s racing-flick, Le Mans ’66.

Adapting the story of the Ford/Ferrari dispute which resulted in the former building the GT40 performance car, Christian Bale plays legendary driver Ken Miles*2, Matt Damon becomes auto-entrepeneur Caroll Shelby, and everyone else is shoved onto the sort of ancillary placeholder character shelf which blights this sort of movie and makes it more average.


Le Mans ’66 is good. It’s just also very average. It’s good at being that sort of grimly determined underdog story, not least because it has one foot firmly in recorded historical fact. Unfortunately that’s gone through the screenwriting process to become a trite, over-acted soap opera of a movie which also happens to have some of the greatest breath-holding race cinematography to hit our screens in recent memory. There’s just not enough of the latter. For a movie about a race that’s named after a race, there’s an awful lot of Le Mans ‘66 spent listening to characters explaining backroom politics and not showing a race.

And yet, the cliché on the surface masks an oddly counter-reverse-cynicism running throughout. By its final reel, this is a film about sticking it to The Man by continuing to work for The Man. It’s about the great American success story being achieved for those who don’t deserve it, by the ones who couldn’t otherwise have done it without their help. About teamwork ultimately resulting in failure when the boss has his name-badge on the glory anyway. About the intuitive racer going against their pathological need to win because the CEO of a corporation told them that would look better. All of these conflicts make the film more interesting than this type of thing usually is. And yet none of these conflicts are resolved as the credits roll, perhaps leaving a bitter taste for anyone who hasn’t come to watch the film just for All The Cars*3.


With sharper scripting, this could have been an interesting companion-piece for Once Upon A Time In Hollywood - the colour palette and production design are certainly there. Would it have hurt Mangold to get a few Rick Dalton movie posters up in the background? Come on, man! Although I accept that having Clint Booth hanging around the track to pick up stunt-driving tips would probably have been too distracting for something that's meant to be A True Story, after all.

But in the moments where it counts, cinematographer Phedon Papamichael captures the racing beautifully. The camera isn’t locked off above the cars and it’s only momentarily at driver-level; the rest of the experience is delivered somewhere around the top-rim of the wheel, visibly shaking with raw speed and adrenaline. More of this and less yakking would have been a good thing.

Ultimately, Le Mans ’66 is a two-and-a-half hour tribute to the podracing sequence in The Phantom Menace, if Anakin Skywalker had come from Sutton Coldfield and verbalised his entire inner monologue. And I’m absolutely fine with that.

So, what sort of thing is it similar to?
If you thought Rush had 'too much edge', James Mangold is your friend.

Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?
For the good bits, yes.

Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?
It is.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
Let's be fair, it's not.

Will we disagree about this film in a pub?
We will.

Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.

Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 2: JJ Feild is in this, and he was in that first Captain America film along with Sam 'Windu' Jackson and Richard 'Tonra' Armitage.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 First point of contention before we even sit down. The movie is called Le Mans '66 in the UK "and other territories", one would imagine because it's about the 24 Hours Of Le Mans race in 1966. And that's fine. Meanwhile in the US it's called Ford v Ferrari, a title which is also technically accurate but feels like it's been applied with considerably less flair. Now, re-titling movies for international markets is by no means a new thing, and obviously the marketing teams know best (it's their job after all), but given the amount of metaphorical flag-waving on display in Mangold's movie, and our transatlantic cousins' previously noted distaste for our Gallic chums, what exactly are 20th Century Fox trying to say about their target American audience here?

No need answer, the question is metaphorical as well. [ BACK ]

*2 With, it's notable to add, a sort of weird Brummie accent which sounds like Dick Van Dyke has set up shop in Wolverhampton. Now, as someone who a) knows nothing about racing history, b) watches a lot of movies and c) gets easily bugged by accents, the first thing I did when returning home was to look up where Ken Miles originated. And lo and behold, he was born in Sutton Coldfield, just north of Birmingham. Fair enough then, I don't need to raise that in my review. It appears that Christian Bale's research stopped at precisely the same point as my own however, as a fellow cinephile at work pointed out the next day that Mr Miles actually sounded... *checks notes* nothing fucking like Bale's interpretation in Le Mans '66. Whatever, it just seems like an odd choice, that's all, which not a single person on-set felt able to call Bale out over. Can you imagine if James Mangold had directed Logan in the same vein? Jackman pacing irritably around a dusty shack mumbling "Roight, I'm gawin't stab yow with these knoives in a minnit!".

Oh, and Ken Miles may have been a genius driver but if Le Mans '66 is anything to go by his sandwich-game was fucking atrocious. That wouldn't have happened in a Jon Favreau version of this movie. [ BACK ]

*3 Although over the previous two and half hours, I'd been under the impression I was watching a film about Christian Bale's Ken Miles. So if anyone can tell me why the final minute of Le Mans '66 is spent watching Matt Damon crying in his car like a potato that's sprung a leak as if that's supposed to mean anything, that'd be lovely. [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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