James Mangold’s expensive race-car drama faces an uphill struggle. A last minute title-change from Ford vs Ferrari eats into valuable public awareness. An early trailer that didn’t make it clear which sides stars Matt Damon and Christian Bale were on, or whether they were competing against each other or not. And following in the slipstream of Ron Howard’s Rush, an excellent two hander with a similar Grand Prix pedigree, which hardly anyone saw despite being a pretty good sports film. So is Le Mans ‘66 the story of Carroll Shelby or Ken Miles? Is it meant to appeal to the public or awards juries? And how many non-petrol-heads will want to see a film about a 24 hour car race?
The good news is that, much like Ken Miles’s disastrous start at the fabled Le Mans race in 1966, where he struggled to get his door properly closed, Mangold’s film gets over teething problems to be a worthy winner on and off the track. Bale does his immersive thing as Miles, a maverick British driver deemed too risky by Henry Ford Jr (Tracy Letts) as he prepares to take on Ferrari as a leading sports-car manufacturer. The one man who believes in Miles is Shelby, played by Damon with some James Stewart charm, and he fights to keep Miles in the hot seat through dangerous development sessions. With the big race looming, the suits wants Miles out, and the bond between the two men is tested…
Le Mans ’66 is a real old-school classic film, with big star performances, no swearing or sex, lots of character detail and elaborate, hugely impressive recreations of classic race action. Bale and Damon both excel, and there’s a touch of executive producer Michael Mann’s obsessiveness in the way the men risk everything for their goal. Although the story development is a little lumpy in places, there are unexpectedly moving moments, like when Miles works late on his car in an aircraft hanger, listening to a big race on the radio. As the lights of the planes illuminate the hanger, the silhouettes of the stationary cars seem to come to life in one of several stand-out moments of movie magic.
Le Mans ’66 might not sound great on paper, and there’s clearly been uncertainty about how to market the product. But it’s easily Mangold’s best film, should play as a feel-good public hit, and has the craftsmanship to launch a strong awards campaign. Even if you couldn’t care less about car-racing, Le Mans ’66 transcends the sports movie clichés to make something supremely rousing out of a long, hard drive.