Le Mans '66

 

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In the year’s most exciting movie, Christian Bale is more than up to speed.

 

Le Mans '66

Wheeling and dealing: Christian Bale

  

The worst thing about Le Mans ’66 is the title. It doesn’t exactly have tread – or sex appeal. However, once the stereophonic whine of souped-up engines encircles the auditorium – even as the company logos roll out – we know we’re onto a winner. Le Mans is a racetrack in France and its annual 24-hour event is an endurance test of herculean proportions. In the 1960s, the field was dominated by Ferrari and Maserati and the Ford Motor Company wanted a bite of the glory. They could sell cars, but they couldn’t sell glamour. So CEO Henry Ford II decided to enter the fray – with an open chequebook.

 

Car manufacturing politics – or even motors zipping round a racetrack – don’t exactly spell exhilarating escapism. But great drama is made of brilliant men with personality defects, all the better locked in a power struggle with corporate bullies who think they know better. Winning at motorsport is not just about speed and spending big bucks – it’s about the skill, intuition and daring of the man behind the wheel.

 

Ken Miles (Christian Bale) is a Brummie racer and auto mechanic who has an instinctive and encyclopaedic knowledge of cars. However, certain anger issues and poor business choices have led to the confiscation of his garage and so he and his wife, Mollie (Caitriona Balfe), find themselves living hand-to-mouth. While Ken has promised Mollie that he will never race again, former racer and automobile designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) approaches him with an offer he can’t refuse. But Ken Miles is the polar opposite of the image that Ford Motors wishes to present to the world…

 

Le Mans ’66 – known by the better title of Ford v Ferrari in the US – is a well-oiled machine. It has a great story, but it also has terrific performances from Damon, Bale and Balfe, heart-stopping racing sequences and a script that crackles like spark plugs. Hyping his brand, Shelby tells Miles that, “We’re lighter, we’re faster. If that don’t work – we’re nastier." And as Henry Ford II, that superlative character actor (and dramatist) Tracy Letts barks out one-word lines with 707 horsepower: “Ruminate!” “Expand!” “Sonofabitch!”

 

But it is Bale, in yet another remarkable transformation (he says that he lost 70 pounds for the role), who supplies the dramatic grip. At one moment he’s hurling an outsize spanner at Damon, and in the next tenderly confiding in the wonders of the track with his son, Peter (Noah Jupe). In one extended shot, the camera just dwells on Bale’s face as he stares at the road ahead, a brave move on the part of the director, James Mangold. But Mangold, who previously directed Bale in 3:10 to Yuma (2007), has the good sense of trusting the actors he has hired.

 

There are two types of film – those that take you by surprise and those that take you where you want to go. Le Mans ’66 is a combination of the two, which gives it an extra rev. In one memorable sequence involving Bale and Balfe, I found myself gripping the arm of my seat, laughing and then feeling terribly moved. And in between the asphyxiating action scenes, the narrative purrs along effortlessly, guided by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders' excellent score. The film may be over two-and-a-half hours’ long, but it feels half that length.

 

Original title: Ford v Ferrari.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Jon Bernthal, Caitriona Balfe, Tracy Letts, Josh Lucas, Noah Jupe, Remo Girone, Ray McKinnon, JJ Feild, Jack McMullen, Wallace Langham.

 

Dir James Mangold, Pro Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping and James Mangold, Ex Pro Michael Mann, Screenplay Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller, Ph Phedon Papamichael, Pro Des François Audouy, Ed Michael McCusker and Andrew Buckland, Music Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders, Costumes Daniel Orlandi, Sound Jay Wilkinson, Dialect coach Victoria Hanlin.

 

Chernin Entertainment/TSG Entertainment/Turnpike Films-20th Century Fox.

152 mins. USA/France. 2019. Rel: 15 November 2019. Cert. 12A.