Le Mans '66 [Ford v Ferrari] (2019)
Directed by James Mangold
The fact that this is released in the US as Ford v Ferrari tells you so much about the desire to play into American audience’s hands. Ford Motors (that great American behemoth), with declining sales and on the brink of financial crash, decide that the best way to restore their image is to build a race car which can compete with the highly efficient Ferrari on the great race tracks of the world. As is often the case with the US, the world really means America. So those NASCAR loving fans needs a little guidance as to what the film is about. Ford v Ferrari equals the US v The World. Or, more importantly, US manufacturing vs. Italian manufacturing. Now that hardly sounds like the stuff that movie magic is made from. Well buckle up, because Le Mans ‘66 as the rest of the civilised world is calling it (only joking America!), is the most adrenaline-fuelled cinematic experience I have seen all year. You really must get out to the cinema to see this one. I was fortunate enough to experience it in an IMAX screen and the sights and sounds are simply euphoric. The purr and roar of the engines delights the inner-child in me in a way I can only assume the sight of caped crusaders excites the comic-book fandom. But much more than that, the characters at the heart of the story are beautifully-written, incredible acted and stay with you long after the credits roll.
Christian Bale is all skin and bones, squeezed dry of the plumpness he presented in Vice, but not of his acting chops, vigour and energy. He’s on absolutely fine form as race car driver Ken Miles, the Brit who loves nothing more than to tear up a race track by pushing his car to the limit before sinking a lovely cup of Typhoo. He’s backed by the support of his friend and car designer Carroll Shelby, played by Matt Damon in his best roles for years. There’s something about Shelby that allows Damon to show a little more pep and vigour than his recent offerings have done. Toe-for-toe these two steal the show, particularly as they are at the heart of all the iconic action you came for. Behind-the-scenes are those pesky suits at Ford, played with perfect naivete and arrogance from Tracy Letts, Jon Bernthal and Josh Lucas. They serve as the antagonists who, despite offering a platform for Miles and Shelby to showcase their talents, are unable to separate their desire for an iconic and wholesome US-leading man to front their new GT40 from a man who can win Le Mans for them.
There are no real surprises along the way. You are getting what you pay for when you come to see this, but the value for money is incredible. If the Ferrari is the belle of the ball then the Ford is the so-called Plain Jane who surprises everyone with a last-minute makeover and wins our hearts. But it’s not about the aesthetics really. We don’t really care how good the car looks, we care if it is going to make a winner out of Shelby and Miles. It’s their friendship, their heart and their passion for their work which matters because it matters to them on a personal level. We don’t get a glimpse into Shelby’s personal life but we spend plenty of time with Miles’ wife Mollie and son Peter. He’s doing it for them, financially yes, but also to make them proud. Whereas those fat cats at the top just want to rescue their ego’s and their pride from the doldrums. It’s this clash between doing it for love and doing it for money which lies at the heart of the films drama. We are always going to be on Miles and Shelby’s side against corporate interference, technical hurdles and personal demons that get in their way. What’s incredibly refreshing is that despite a small fight mid-film, which is played mostly for laughs, Miles and Shelby have each others backs entirely. Their camaraderie and belief in one another is unwavering and uplifting and goes to show it’s not about how many people you have on your side, but who!
Speaking of humour, there’s much to be had in the script, which is what makes this film so damn enjoyable. It’s not a deep character-study, but it doesn't need to be, it’s the laughs which seduce you. Whether that’s the head of Ford reduced to a hysterical crying fit after once round the lap with Shelby, or Miles’ incessant digs at his fellow-drivers while on the track, the laughs help humanise two men who seem to be God-like on the track. That's a testament to the Butterworth Brothers whose screenplays have sometimes sored (Edge of Tomorrow) and sometimes crashed and burned (Spectre). Surprisingly, you’d think they were American because much of Miles dialogue sounds like a ‘Dummy’s Guide To Speaking British’. Maybe that’s just the way Bale is chewing it up and spitting it out but lines like ‘Just having a cuppa’, ‘You’ll be home in time for Meatloaf and Gravy’ and ‘I’m H-A-P-P-Y!’ feel like lines that were written for the kooky British character who guest stars in a sitcom. Somehow, those lines work in the context of this film and only serve to heighten the remarkable characterisation of Miles.
Director James Mangold has taken their script and shown us that, irrespective of the corporate drama, the character-driven narrative and the race sequences are what really interests him. Alongside cinematographer Phedon Papamichael they manage to get us up close and personal to the frantic speed and energy of the race cars. We feel the engine roaring, the brakes kicking in and the asphalt flying by inches below us because we are in those death traps with them the whole way. We’re not sitting comfortably in the stands like the Ford bigwigs, we are right down there in the pits and behind the wheel. The limited views the drivers have is emphasised by going for close-ups with wide angle lenses. It makes the climactic 24H Le Mans race all the more absorbing, thrilling and emotionally gruelling. There are more heart-in-mouth moments than I care to remember and Mangold scores massively on that front.
By journey’s end you realise that beating Ferrari is not what’s important. It’s about fulfilling personal goals. A slight nod of appreciation and respect between Enzo Ferrari and Miles is more telling than entire hollow discussions had at the top by Ford executives. Compromise and being a team player might not be personally satisfying, but if it is the mark of a man who can walk away from that without kicking off which says more about his integrity than winning a race ever could. Le Mans ‘66 is an incredibly thrilling experience that ticks every box you’ll have going in. It’s not groundbreaking cinema and perhaps you can see every plot point before it arrives but when it lands this well, who really cares?