Writers: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, Jason Keller and James Mangold
Director: James Mangold
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
Gaskets blow, brakes fail and loyalties are tested in this exciting history of how Ford pitched itself against Ferrari at the 1966 Le Mans, the 24-hour sports car race. Featuring heavyweights Matt Damon and Christian Bale, Le Mans ’66 has all the makings of a Hollywood classic.
Taking the driving seat in this high-octane true story is James Mangold, known most recently for his mature and thoughtful Logan, the X-Men spin-off. Mangold’s vision is clear although in the rear-view mirror are, of course, smudges of Steve McQueen’s Le Mans of 1971. In a nod to this iconic film McQueen’s name is mentioned quite early on here as a prospective buyer of cars.
In the US the film is entitled Ford v Ferrari turning the labours of Henry Ford II to beat his Italian rival into a battle between America and Europe. Perhaps this belligerent tone led to the rest of the world calling the film, Le Mans ’66, the date differentiating between the earlier McQueen movie.
While there is a battle of sorts between Ford (an excellent turn by Tracy Letts, full of bluster and arrogance) and Ferrari (an equally haughty Remo Girone), the film rests on the story of Ken Miles, the British racing driver (Bale), who is eventually allowed to drive the new Ford GT40s. Despite his short temper and forthrightness, Carroll Shelby (Damon) knows that he is the right guy for the job, rejecting Ford’s claim that Ken isn’t really the right face to represent such a wholesome business.
Ken is undeniably irascible, throwing a wrench at ex-racing car driver Shelby in an early scene when he jumps in to pacify an argument Brummie Ken is having with an official. To please the US market, Bale’s accent is larger than life and full of bloody hells, cups of tea, and giddy ups. It’s a credit to Bale that, even with these English affectations and his short fuse, we are quickly on Ken’s side, and really the film should be called Ford v Ken, as this is the main battle in the film: the little man against the big man, the poor man against the rich man, and the individual against the corporation.
The tale of the underdog is a familiar one, but this one flies as quickly as the cars on the track, fuelled by the deftness of the screenplay, written, amongst others, by British dramatist Jez Butterworth. In between the speeding cars there’s little left for Damon to do, but this good guy image comes naturally to him, and he adds some comedy to keep things light. His ally at Ford is Jon Bernthal, an actor who improves with each film he’s in and he has come a long way since being a zombie in The Walking Dead.
But the real stars here are the cars, the Fords and the Ferraris, and when they are on the track it’s gripping stuff. Cars may crash, but Le Mans ’66 is definitely not a car crash.
The BFI Film Festival runs from 2 October to 13 October