Review: Le Mans ’66

Director: James Mangold

Stars: Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Noah Jupe

Having made it through his Wolverine obsession with Logan and, err, The Wolverine, James Mangold emerges out the other side, returning to the Ron Howard-aping middle ground of modern Hollywood’s journeymen for what is actually – clearly – another passion project. Le Mans ’66 (or Ford V Ferrari in most other territories) charts the endeavours of the Ford Motor Company to best Ferrari at their own game at the famous 24 hour race in France. Largely because a proud Italian man facing bankruptcy touched the nerve of one of the wealthiest men in America.

There is hushed talk in the middle of the film about how, the faster you drive, the slower the world flies past you, as Brummie driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) talks to his son Pete (Noah Jupe) as they sit together on a track. Bale imbues Miles with a romantic attachment to motor racing, and its a good little speech, but it also neatly (and unintentionally) sums up the awkward association Le Mans ’66 has with time. Given that part of the subject here is how to go very, very fast, Mangold manages to make his senselessly long 152 minute movie feel like practically double that. Sitting through this thing feels like the endurance test of its titular race, except you don’t get others relieving you along the way. Coming out the other end – following an excruciatingly protracted coda – feels like you’ve binge-watched a TV mini-series rather than experienced an adrenaline-shot love letter to sportsmanship and engineering endeavour.

Ferrari don’t feature all that much, truth be told, and given the Italians’ jingoist post-war depiction, that’s probably for the best. Instead, Mangold’s film focuses on the friendship between maverick racer Miles and Ford’s chosen showrunner; former-racer-cum-car-salesman Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon). Both actors are cast to their established strengths, given that Bale is best known for playing eccentric alpha males and Damon for his privileged dullards. Still, they’re both where they are because they can do the job well, and the friendship is solidly sold throughout, even if they’re the kind of duo that throw tools at one another, or who get down and dirty tussling in the garbage.

Indeed, the greater face-off that the film catalogues is Ford v Ford. Miles and Shelby are painted as purists, idealists, while their financial backers constantly undermine and get in the way of their efforts. The successes they achieve end up feeling like victories made in spite of Ford, rather than because of them. It’s a blunt-force lesson in creativity butting heads with public relations and numbers men. In spite of a mandate of innovation, the corporate guys still blanch at anything that looks like a risk.

Helping to bolster Le Mans ’66 are some well-written and smartly cast supporters. Somehow Jon Bernthal has finally convinced someone to give him more than five minutes in a movie, and he delivers a Ford adman who can pitch like Don Draper (so long as his Kodak carousel is working right). Tracy Letts gives good mileage as Henry Ford II; buttoned down but still showing some of that go-get-em spirit. While arguably best of all is Caitriona Balfe as Miles’ supportive wife Mollie. Their relationship is fanned with just as much warmth as found between the two male leads, allowing Balfe the opportunity to make something of the oft thankless other-half role.

And Le Mans ’66 isn’t all chore. In fact, it belts out of the gate surprisingly well. True enough it settles into a comfortable trundling pace a little too comfortably, but the challenge of building a car to best Ferrari (and the commitment to task shown by Miles and Shelby) makes for particularly easy viewing. But, like many of the sport’s most famous names, the movie just doesn’t know how to quit. Spending a lot of time on the actual endurance race at Le Mans seems sensible enough – to instill a sense of its hugeness – but its so long before we get there. Do we need the Daytona stuff? Do we need as many examples of company man Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) being a one-dimensional dick? The movie expands egregiously and this becomes its greatest undoing, much more-so than its safe MOR aesthetics or open prestige ambitions.

There’s far too much technical prowess and commendable work from the cast to call Le Mans ’66 a failure. It gets the job done and then some. It’s just the ‘then some’ that’s so frustrating. One can only wonder, ironically, whether someone ought to have reigned Mangold in. Bring this baby in at two hours or less and you’d have a winner.

Score: 

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