Le Mans 66 follows in the footsteps of previous biopics chronicling the incredible true stories behind motorsport’s greatest rivalries; from Niki Lauda vs James Hunt in Rush to Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost in Senna. Pushing the thrill and glamour of motor racing to the side, the film lifts the lid on the passion and utter determination of these drivers and their teams as they’re pushed to the limits.
Director James Mangold superbly brings to life the famous rivalry between car manufacturers Ford and Ferrari, as the two companies battle for supremacy in the legendary 1966 Le Mans race. It’s 1963 and in an effort to boost car sales and attract a new target market, the Ford Motor Co attempt to buy out Italian racing car manufacturers Ferrari. After rejecting their bid and calling their cars ugly, Scuderia Ferrari ignites the ferocious competition between the two automobile businesses. So Ford enlists the stetson-wearing American car designer Caroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and Brummy engineer and test driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to design and create a revolutionary car that will rival the champions in the ultimate test of endurance at the Circuit de la Sarthe.
For a film named after the iconic event which chronicles one of the greatest automotive clashes, I was surprised to find a compelling and earnest character study at the heart of the tale. Mangold opts for a far greater emphasis on the central friendship between Shelby and Miles than the racing itself, exploring the trials and tribulations the two face along the way to create a piece of motorsport history. Damon and Bale shine, bringing a genuine likability to the roles that leads you to root for them right from the start. Their bickering also brings a lot of humour to the film, particularly in their hilarious fight outside Miles’ home with Ken’s wife, Mollie Miles, even unfolding a deckchair to watch. They’re complete opposites and their friendship really shouldn’t work, but I utterly enjoyed watching their bond and mutual respect deepen as the film progresses.
But the movie ultimately belongs to Bale; he truly immerses himself as the highly volatile but talented Miles, brimming with intensity and total dedication to the drive, always chasing the perfect lap.“It’s out there, but not everyone can see it.” This dangerous obsession leads him to push the car and himself to the extreme, as “at 7000rpm the car dissappears, leaving just me in time and space.” This utter devotion to the job puts a huge strain on Miles’ family, particularly his idolising son, following a close call while test driving a prototype. His battle against the Ford marketing executives makes for a great underdog tale, with Miles undergoing a fantastic arc throughout the film. Credit to Bale as he continues to be one of the greatest actors of our time – he really does embrace the role, even down to Miles’ mannerisms, Brummy accent, and phrases.
For a film that has a lengthy run time of 152-minutes, it very rarely dragged, particularly down to the great mixture of humour and heart, with plenty of laugh-out-loud scenes. I think my highlight had to be Shelby reducing Henry Ford II to tears after a crazy lap around the track! But the third act at Le Mans is where the film truly comes to life, with a number of exhilarating and gripping racing sequences that leave you on the edge of your seat, particularly when Miles goes toe-to-toe with Ferrari rival Bandini on the Mulsanne Straight. The impressive and at time claustrophobic camera work puts you right up alongside Ken, immersing you in the action on the track in the beautiful Ford GT40, with some particularly impressive stunt work. There’s plenty of obstacles for the British driver to navigate along the way, as a number of high octane crashes and executive decisions impact the course of the race.
Le Mans 66 is a captivating and thrilling journey that pushes the limits of man and machine, that will surely delight petrol heads and film fans alike. The fantastic dynamic between Bale and Damon really propels the film, with impressive production design and gripping action to boot. This may have overtaken a couple of recent titles, scooping a spot on the podium as one of my favourite films of the year.