Based on an incredible true story and bringing one of motor racing’s unsung heroes to due prominence, “Le Mans ‘66” (or, if you prefer – as many seem to – “Ford v Ferrari”) tells the fascinating story of how consumer motor giant Ford took on luxury carmaker Ferrari in a ruthless battle for dominance over the Le Mans 24-hour race.
In 1963, the Ford Motor Company eyes up an opportunity to buy the cash-strapped Ferrari as a way to inject some needed glamour into their brand but when Ford themselves get played by Ferrari in order to provoke a more lucrative and beneficial deal from Fiat, Henry Ford II vows revenge and instructs his racing team to build a car to defeat Ferrari in the prestigious 24 hour race at Le Mans. Ford look to Shelby American owner Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), the only American at that point to have won Le Mans and in turn, Shelby enlists the help of Ken Miles(Christian Bale), a hot-tempered British racer and struggling mechanic.
Although it has its roots in a clash of corporate hubris, James Mangold’s sunny and absorbing biopic actually eschews the Ford v Ferrari rivalry to explore under the hood of the Ford v Shelby and Miles drama where the real tactical and strategic game was played out. The tensions between the corporate suits of Ford and the pursuit of racing excellence from Shelby and Miles keep the film’s rev counter all the way to the redline and, despite its hefty two-and-a-half-hour runtime, it never feels the need to downshift.
The racing scenes are superbly realised, kinetic, thrilling and genuinely white-knuckle whether or not you know how this story plays out and thanks to a pair of great performances from Damon and Bale, there’s a lot to enjoy when we’re not in the driving seat too. Sports movies tend to succeed or fail based not on the actual sporting events but the personalities that were involved and both actors go big-hearted with their performances here, bringing the gifted racing drivers to vivid life. Bale especially, an actor I often find to be like the Lloyds of London building when it comes to his performances: all the internal choices are externalised and you’re never not aware of his performance or his active choices, is superb here. Authentic and understated, there’s hardly any of his usual obviousness in his craft and he disappears into the role of Miles superbly. There’s such a wonderfully warm and genuine rapport between Bale and Damon that at times the film comes perilously close to being a big-budget “Top Gear: The Movie” – and I mean that as a sincere compliment.
It’s a rousing, crowd-pleasing and expertly crafted piece of cinema, a perfectly engineered assemblage of a sharp script, explosive screen chemistry and seamless practical and digital effects that sees the finished product roar across the finish line.