Forced into retirement with a heart complaint, legendary former winner of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) now spends his life designing, building and selling cars – not entirely successfully. As a side-line, Shelby is also looking for connections to aid the driving career of talented but ageing and temperamental British midlander Ken Miles (Christian Bale). At 45 years old, Ken has a wife (Mollie – Caitriona Balfe), a young son, a struggling business in debt to the IRS, and is seriously close to giving up on his driving career in order to better support his family.
Meanwhile, the Ford Motor Company are experiencing a sustained drop in sales. CEO Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) is convinced by marketing man Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) that the company has become too safe, and its products not aspirational enough for the boomer generation just beginning to drive. Citing Ferrari, Ford understands that Le Mans would be a good way to reposition the brand.
After an abortive attempt at a merger with Ferrari, ending in harsh insults from Enzo Ferrari himself (Remo Girone), the Le Mans project becomes as much about defeating Ferrari as it does about positioning the Ford name. With Shelby approached to lead the programme, he will need to fight layers of corporate interference – in particular from VP Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) – as both his programme and his choice of the decidedly non-conforming Miles are consistently questioned and undermined.
The first point to get out of the way is that it is wise to ignore timeline and historical accuracy when watching Le Mans ’66. In fact, only the title makes it entirely clear which year’s race this is. After the prologue concerning Shelby’s victory, we seem to take up in 1963. Yet references both to James Bond and to John Surtees’ Formula One performances immediately make clear we’ve slipped into 1964 (Surtees being the ’64 World Champion, for Ferrari, and Goldfinger released that year). After a tilt at the 1964 race, we build up to the following year, er, 1966. Yes, we seemingly skip a year, and the film ignores the fact that Miles did take part in the 1965 race. Making the film about Miles and Shelby also minimises the quality and contribution of other drivers. As examples, Miles is dropped from the ’64 race in favour of inferior drivers – those “inferior” drivers being Bruce McLaren (F1 driver and founder of the McLaren team) and Phil Hill, 1961 Formula One World Champion. In the 1966 race itself, Ken is the only driver of car #1 on which there is any focus, and winning or losing reflects on him alone. The second driver is something of a faceless nobody: in reality, 1967 Formula One World Champion, Denny Hulme.
None of the above presents any real problem at all, however, in terms of telling this story. The sole problem to remain – in action terms – is the sense that Ken can and will do anything he needs to get the job done: that he can drive the car as fast as necessary, and will always have just enough time and space to complete his objectives. Only in the Daytona race earlier in the film do the stakes and circumstances of a race generate any palpable tension. In that regard, it’s like watching a Herbie film, where no matter how much time or distance the little beetle lost it could make up in no time. The sense of the Beeble character as far too stereotypically villainous is the only other serious flaw in what is a terrific film.
Le Mans ’66 just has so much heart. It’s a film primarily about balancing the chasing of dreams with the cold, hard, harshness of life’s realities. Shelby has to quit driving at a young age: his body no longer having the capacity for job. We see his frustrations as he’s reduced to promoting others to do what he can no longer; expressing that frustration in driving fast cars way too quickly around the Hollywood Hills. Ken is 45 when we meet him. He’s the talent but his personality has got in the way of opportunity, and now his choices have led to hard financial times for his family. Similarly with Ford: an historic company falling on tougher times are having to balance ambition against the reality that they will never truly be a Ferrari.
READ MORE: The Far Country (1954) – Blu-ray Review
Damon and Bale have superb chemistry. The Shelby character is trying to play the corporate game, yet can’t quite. The Miles character has no intention of playing that game, and his attitude has to be fought by a frustrated Shelby – who may have more of Miles about him than is first apparent. Though we learn nothing of Carroll’s family or home life (making this, by default, Ken’s film), Ken’s family are included without it ever becoming too sentimental. The sense of responsibility weighs heavily on a man keen to set a good example, but – despite knowing he’s a decent husband and father – fearing his personality is just incompatible with being able to do this. It’s a useful device, also, for demonstrating the essential selfishness of racing drivers: at one point, Mollie taking Ken on a white knuckle drive, in frustration at being kept out of the loop.
Despite lacking for a little tension, driving sequences are excellent. Camerawork is inventive, angles chosen to emphasise speed, and contact between cars presented with consequences. This is supported by a decent Marco Beltrami score that transforms from a varied, 60s-appropriate score in the rest of the film, to a percussive, nimble and propulsive work in the driving scenes. This is supported by a general sound design that knows when to drop out and emphasise Ken, and Ken’s breathing. The success of the driving sequences is evidence of a decent budget: the one thing lacking from the 2013 Ron Howard film Rush, where everything looked a little slow. We are in A-list Hollywood territory, with 1966 Le Mans itself recreated beautifully.
After 2017’s Logan, director James Mangold has demonstrated, again, his versatility. He’s produced a film that is lovely to look at, well performed, wears its themes lightly and – importantly in covering such a dangerous sport – is very funny. Dialogue is sharp, characters share real chemistry, and there is a playful us-against-the-world tone that suits the film so well. Le Mans ’66 really isn’t about the cars, so it’s highly recommended, regardless of a viewer’s general feelings on motorsports or sports films.