Academy-award-winners Christian Bale and Matt Damon portray competing drivers in the tale of 1960s racetrack rivalry
Combining adrenaline-fuelled racing with the human stories behind the technology, Le Mans ’66 brings motorsport history to life.
Whether it's the recent Chris Hemsworth-helmed Rush, Tom Cruise's 80s thrill ride Days Of Thunder or even comedy Talladega Nights, cinema has a habit of making cars going around a track at high speed seem very exciting. After all, the Fast and the Furious franchise has made billions from gratuitous shots of gear shifting and putting the pedal to the metal. And while there is a fair amount of that in Le Mans '66, it's ultimately the story and relationships off the track that are the most resonant.
Though the British release has the title of the climactic race, elsewhere in the world the film is known by the moniker of Ford v Ferrari, which does what it says in the tin: chronicling the out-of-touch-Ford company's attempts to overtake the stylish, sexy cars of Ferrari on the European race circuits.
Ford enlists the help of former Le-Mans-victor-turned-car-designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) to help it win at the famous 24-hour endurance race, while resisting Shelby's choice of driver: the talented but difficult down-on-his-luck Brit Ken Miles (Christian Bale). It's a tale of the corporate machine and independent entrepreneurial spirit trying to coexist for a shared goal.
Matt Damon and Christian Bale in Le Mans ‘66
While Bale's maverick Ken Miles has the majority of the best lines, delivered in a sardonic Warwickshire tone, audiences used to Top Gear may find some of his posturing and Clarksonisms behind the wheel quite jarring. Instead the highlight is his time spent with wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) and son Peter (Noah Jupe) as they face financial woes and the fear of Miles' dangerous profession with gravitas.
Though more understated, Damon's Carroll Shelby takes the podium with his southern charm and ‘60s cool battling with the frustrations of early racing retirement and having to contend with the corporate machine of Ford scuppering their own ambitions of winning Le Mans. His turn as the famous designer is helped by outstanding turns from interfering Ford suit Leo Bebe (Josh Lucas), John Bernthal's sympathetic lynchpin Lee Iacocca, and a dominating Tracy Letts as Henry Ford II, with one scene out on a test drive with Damon particularly captivating.
While casting is tantamount to such an ensemble who do well to carry an often cliché-heavy script, the visual aspects of the film allow you to feel the vibrations of the cars hitting that all important 7,000rpm, with the smells and taste of grease, petrol and testosterone not far in the background. Some outstanding set pieces keep the pace hurtling forward, while the sight of Bale and Damon putting classic 60s motors through their paces is achingly cool no matter what your motoring persuasion.
While those unfamiliar with the events the film is based on might think they can anticipate the story as it traverses inevitable potholes only to speed triumphantly to the chequered flag, the finish line has surprises in store. While it may take liberties – the excellent 24 Hour War documentary is available for the real nuts and bolts story – Le Mans ’66 has enough rugged horsepower and nous to enjoyably speed through its 152-minute runtime.