Ok, so I’m a tiny bit of a petrol-head, more motorcycles than cars, but even I knew who Carroll Shelby was, his association with the Ford Motor Company and the famous win they created beating the dominant Ferrari racing team. In some territories (the US for one), this film is titled Ford vs. Ferrari. I’m not sure why they felt they had to dumb down the title.
I’m also a huge fan of director James Mangold who brought us Walk The Line and great westerns such as the 3:10 to Yuma remake and Logan (yes, Logan was a Western - dressed up as a superhero film). He knows how to tell a story and get to the humanity of the piece. And that’s what this film is. Le Mans ‘66 is the struggle of two men to find their place in the world against the backdrop of two giants of the motor car industry, Henry Ford II and Enzo Ferrari who struggle for their pride.
Matt Damon plays American car designer Carroll Shelby and Christian Bale plays driver Ken Miles. Together, they battle corporate interference, the laws of physics and their own personal demons to build a revolutionary race car for Ford and challenge Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966. Spoilers - they win. Well we knew that. It’s a bit like going into see Titanic - we know how it ends. But as with their struggles, life has a way of twisting the end and Le Mans ‘66 does this with wonderful humanity and heart.
Go see this on the biggest, loudest screen you can find. Director Mangold manages to put us right in the car seat with Ken Miles (Bale) and it is just stunning. I have to confess to being on the edge of my seat and once or twice reaching for imaginary pedals at my feet.
At the heart of this film is the central performances of Matt Damon and Christian Bale. Damon is on top form as the gum-chewing Texan and his signature black Stetson. He is in top form and inhabits Carroll Shelby with real humanity and swagger. Bale has had some hit of miss performances in his career. From The Mechanic to the Dark Knight trilogy to last year’s Vice, I’ve found him difficult to watch at times. My perspective may be informed by his notorious rants on set. In this though, he brings Ken Miles to life including his odd accent, self-doubt and self-belief. He started out as a thoroughly unlikable character and ended up winning me over. Only a good performance can do that.
Special mention to Dubliner Catriona Balfe who plays Miles’ wife. The role is a bit of a trope but Balfe brings real passion and shows she was not a bad driver herself either! Tracy Letts plays Henry Ford II with the right mix of bombast and pride. There is a lovely scene where Damon, as Shelby, takes him for a ride in “the car I paid $9million for”. He breaks down crying and genuinely upset, not because of the ride but because he wished he father has lived to see it. It’s a wonderful human moment. There I go again - more humanity!
The script, written by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller, is wonderful. Dialogue sparkles and Bales gets to drop in some Sutton-Coldfield witticisms.
This is not just for petrol-heads. This is a love story. This is a story of friendship. This is a story of determination, success and tragedy. Yes, it’s a little schmaltzy but I didn’t care, my heart was pounding. I cried at what I thought was the end and then I wept at the actual end. This will be in my top ten of 2019.
In a recent interview, James Mangold had this to say:
“I hope this film makes you think about the value of friendship like the one between Ken Miles and Shelby. We’ve all become so isolated. Theirs was a time when technology hadn’t robbed us of our interdependence. More than just amazing cars and speed, I think this is a film about family, survival, and the way you have to learn to trust your friends with your lives if you ever hope to transcend yourself.”