Director: James Mangold
Starring: Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Caitriona Balfe, Jon Bernthal, Josh Lucas, Ray McKinnon, Noah Jupe and Tracy Letts
Run time: 2h 32m
With Ford Motor Company’s sales in decline, Henry Ford II (Letts) is determined to appeal to America’s younger generation by making his cars more dynamic and aesthetically pleasing. At the same time, Ford are desperate to overthrow rivals Ferrari and their dominance of the epic 24 hour Le Mans endurance race. They recruit former Le Mans winner, Carroll Shelby (Damon) who was forced to quit racing due to a heart condition, to design and build a car worthy of taking on the champions. Now a salesman, he jumpstarts at the chance to be involved with serious motorsport again.
He enlists the help of renegade racer and engineer, Ken Miles (Bale), a loose cannon used to driving by his own rules, but an incredible talent on the track. Together, the pair make a formidable force as they get their motors running, but must deal with corporate politics as the Company’s money men fear Ken’s volatile personality doesn’t suit Ford’s family image. Internal bickering leads to feuding and underhand schemes as the race to beat Ferrari in the 1966 event heats up.
Driving the film from the start, Damon and Bale are sensational together. Their chemistry keeps things moving in top gear and as Shelby and Miles, their mutual respect and desire to prove themselves is always engaging. Shelby’s laid-back, sardonic Southern drawl as he tries to keep the peace between Ford and Ken allows Bale to play up to his hot-headed reputation in an exaggerated turn that could’ve gone horribly wrong with a lesser actor in the role. Ken’s not always fast and furious, however, as his relationship with his son (an endearing Jupe) offers moments of poignancy and tenderness as the brakes are occasionally applied to the action. Tracy Letts is also on fine, menacing form and dominates the screen as his workers tremble at the very sight of him and Josh Lucas oozes deceit as his right-hand man.
As good as the acting is, it’s the racing scenes where the movie really speeds up. Every pedal push, every screech of brakes, the burning rubber and every hairpin corner is brought to life with bone jarring clarity. Director James Mangold, along with cinematographer Phedon Papamichael and his sound crew, reach pole position as they make each lap a visceral experience. The fear of driving 200mph in torrential rain, at night, is driven home with pulse-quickening expertise for a truly memorable experience.
Although few, there are some bumps along the road. Ken’s wife, Mollie (Balfe), has little to do apart from go through the motions as she tries to persuade him to stop racing and then look anxious as she listens to his progress on the radio. Jon Bernthal’s Ford executive is relegated to the pits after a promising start whilst the Italians featured come across as stereotypical gangsters.
Passing the chequered flag at just over two and a half hours, it may be a long haul, but Le Mans ’66 is one hell of a ride and delivers some of cinema’s finest racing sequences with outstanding performances from its two leads keeping it motoring along.
Le Mans ’66 drives into UK cinemas on November 15.