Le Mans ’66: a 200mph buddy movie

Published: 14 November 2019

► Based on the true story
► Bale and Damon star
► We're holding our breath for now

Spoiler alert! Only joking. The makers of Le Mans ’66 may have taken some massive liberties with the facts, but they didn’t go so far as to change the result of the race that it’s all building up to. Ford GT40s duly take first, second and third in the 24-hour race, scores are settled, meaningful looks are exchanged, history is made and 53 years later we’re still feeling the echoes.

First things first...

It’s a film that comes wearing a suicide vest, shooting itself in both feet while digging its own bear trap – a drama based on very well documented events, which will inevitably infuriate many a viewer with its distortions of the facts in the name of dramatic effect. If you’re approaching it in that frame of mind you could easily spend two hours tutting and huffing: he didn’t look like that, nobody said ‘You’re welcome’ like that in the mid ’60s, she wasn’t at that meeting, they wouldn’t do it like that, those are the wrong shoes, and that Aston Villa replica top is surely years off.

But if you can park your fact checker at the popcorn counter, it’s hugely entertaining, intermittently funny, occasionally very exciting and ultimately highly rewarding. It’s nicely shot and dressed, a bit like Mad Men on holiday. The cars look and sound great, some of the action sequences are astonishing, the script is mostly lean and sharp, and there are several fine performances.

The cast

Matt Damon is Carroll Shelby, the second American to win Le Mans. We meet him as his racing days are coming to an end and he’s becoming a builder of Cobras and the car that’s the subject of this film, the Ford GT40. Damon basically plays him as a cowboy.

Christian Bale is Ken Miles, a ‘difficult’ Brummie development driver and racer based in California who hooks up with Sheby on the GT40 project. Bale channels a bit of Nigel Mansell and a lot of Kevin Turvey. He also gets to do some spectacular Brummie swearing, which I hope proves influential on teenagers the world over.

There are also notable performances from Jon Bernthal as Ford VP Lee Iacocca. The script stops giving him any lines after about 20 minutes, but he gamely continues grimacing and wincing for the rest of the film. His eyebrows should be in line for some kind of Academy Award.

And Tracy Letts as Henry Ford II is sublime. At first you think he’s a boorish blowhard, but slowly you realise that he’s struggling to emerge from the weight of history dumped on him by his father. You soon believe he really would go to war with Enzo Ferrari. And he shares the best scene in the whole movie with Damon. After their first bash at Le Mans with the GT40 fails to produce the hoped-for podium, Shelby persuades Ford to continue the project, and give him more control. Both men are taking a massive gamble. You’re there in the room with them.

What's wrong with it?

But it’s not all that good. There are way too many cheesy cliches, not least that ludicrous thing you get in racing flims where two drivers will stare one another out mid-overtake, again and again. And there’s a recurring bit of pseudo-mystical guff about the perfect lap and about getting into the zone at 7000rpm. It’s uncomfortably reminiscent of Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison finding his inner Native American in Oliver Stone’s The Doors.

And Le Mans ’66 fails to overcome the problem in all racing films, whether they’re dramas or documentaries: the actual racing gets a bit dull, especially when you know the result. You end up with a lot of shots of Christian Bale sweating, sometimes while swearing, and Carroll Shelby and Lee Iacocca looking concerned in the pits.

The other big issue is the film’s sub-title (its actual title in the US): Ford v Ferrari. Thing is, that’s not really what the film’s about. It’s a Bale-Damon buddy movie. If it’s anyone versus anyone, it’s the cowboys of the Shelby race operation versus the suits of Ford’s Dearborn HQ, and that’s the bit that feels most distorted and contrived. You barely meet any of the Ferrari personnel, and Enzo himself is played as a haughty European Bond villain.

But all that aside, it’s a blast.

Le Mans ’66 is in cinemas from 15 November

By Colin Overland

CAR's managing editor: wordsmith, critic, purveyor of fine captions