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Review: Le Mans '66

The epic Ford vs. Ferrari battle is a funny and poignant cinematic experience, says Emily Shawcross

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Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Directed by: James Mangold
Starring: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Jon Bernthal, Tracy Letts
Running Time: 2hr 32mins
Rating: PG-13

It would be hard to deny the recent saturation of biopics over the past few years. The well-polished, crowd pleasing tales of, particularly American, cultural icons have become arguably the most typical form of Oscar bait. Very few, aside from the likes of 2016’s Jackie for example, stand out as particularly innovative or ground-breaking in the genre of biographical drama. Le Mans 66 suffers from this, ultimately playing it safe to ensure entertainment value, sometimes making the viewer question if they’ve already seen the film before. However, the film’s predictability is often greatly overshadowed by other elements that make for a funny, interesting, and poignant cinematic experience.

Le Mans 66 follows car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) as they aim to build a car with Ford to win the coveted 24 hour Le Mans race in France against Ferrari. The odds are stacked against them, from the legacy of Ferrari winning the race year after year to Ford’s image as a reliable, family car instead of a revolutionary race car. The film highlights the very human desire to strive for perfection, to race “the perfect lap”. It deals with the sacrifices made in the pursuit of such dreams and the physical and emotional toils of sport itself, the most defining and dangerous example of human potential.

The chemistry between Matt Damon and Christian Bale provides a strong backbone for the whole film but Damon is ultimately outshined by Bale’s stand out performance as the stubborn and sarcastic driver Ken Miles. Strong performances from the cast elevate the at times predictable and mediocre script, you become deeply invested in these characters from the performances alone. The beauty of this film lies particularly with the sound design and visual editing. The races feel real and look glorious, and the tension built during these scenes is palpable. The racing scenes are the heart of the film, exhilarating, loud, and most importantly, fun. Mangold manages to balance the poignant elements of biographical drama with entertaining and funny scenes, giving the film a sense of levity that is often lost in biopics through the need to be overtly realistic.

It’s an all-American tale of sticking it to the man, even if one of the two main characters is English.  At times it feels as though the film is arguing that the bond between man and machine supersedes the tides of capitalism presiding over everything, throwing a dose of classic masculine tropes in there for good measure, but the weight of these factors is not nearly as oppressive as it could be. It is a film that champions going against the grain of bureaucracy and the corporate chokehold, the all too familiar narrative that the men in the suits never know best. Again, the film provides nothing new in the sense of narrative structure, but it stands out to me as one of the more engaging and interesting sports films of recent years, precisely because it knows what it is trying to do and does it well. Mangold has already ventured into the realm of biopics before with 2005’s Walk the Line and 1999’s Girl, Interrupted, and there is a confidence to his style of filmmaking that allows the film to navigate familiar tropes while remaining highly enjoyable.

Le Mans 66 is fast paced, feel-good cinema. It is exhilarating and engaging, a suave and at times effortlessly cool crowd-pleaser. It’s worth it for some of Bale’s quippy one liners alone. I walked in knowing nothing about the story or history behind it and found myself pleasantly surprised with how much fun I had watching it. Le Mans 66 will be a sure-fire favourite among racing enthusiasts, but it has the charm to be enjoyed by many more.

Editor's note: This film was screened at City Screen York.

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