Forget the cars - Le Mans ’66 is a movie about making movies
Christian Bale and Matt Damon’s latest is more of a meditation on modern Hollywood than a 1960s racing biopic
Logan director James Mangold has made a fun, enjoyable movie in Le Mans ’66 (called Ford vs Ferrari in other territories), which tells the true story of how a difficult racer (Christian Bale) teamed up with a champ-turned-car builder (Matt Damon) to win the legendary 24 hours at Le Mans race – all at the behest of mega car corporation Ford.
But when watching this film, it becomes clear that it’s not just about the real biographical events, or the racing, or even the human story between Bale’s Ken Miles and Damon’s Caroll Shelby.
No, Le Mans ’66 has been made as a movie about making movies – and specifically, about making something artistically relevant within a massive studio system, an experience Mangold himself went through while making superhero films The Wolverine and Logan for 20th Century Fox, the same studio that made this film (and has since been bought by Disney).
“I mean I think that's something I definitely felt in the storyline that I could connect to,” Mangold told RadioTimes.com at a recent interview in Paris.
“It’s this essential battle between the pursuit of instinct and creativity and vision, and how it runs into the neverending vicissitudes of corporate decisions and limitations.”
“It's a real 1-1 correlation about how the dynamics work,” agreed star Damon.
“They're really exactly the same. You've got the corporation that underwrites the creative process, and the tension between those two things.”
“Shelby's the director, having to deal with the studio, which is Ford,” added Bale. “And he's having to deal with the actor, who is Ken Miles.”
And in fact, an even more direct correlation could be seen in the very crew working on the film.
“Jim Mangold has this director of photography called Phedon Papamichael – the two of them have worked together for years,” Bale told us. “And they're just like Shelby and Miles.
“They've got this absolute love and respect for each other, they've got a common dream that they're going for and they bicker like crazy. It's bloody hilarious to watch the two of them.
“And it was a great inspiration for the two of us just to sit there and go 'oh, there they go again.'”
Though if you follow the allegory to its conclusion, Le Mans ’66 doesn’t paint an entirely positive picture of modern filmmaking. Throughout the film, Miles and Shelby consistently run foul of slimy Ford executive Leo Beebe, who attempts to curtail their work (and fire Miles) several times, in what could seem as an explicit criticism of studio interference.
Though, perhaps unexpectedly, Mangold doesn’t necessarily see it that way.
“Leo Beebe was trying to do the best he could for the Ford motor corporation,” the director argued.
“He knew that what the Ford motor needed was a great picture of their three cars passing the finish line. They didn't need Ken Miles winning the triple crown. That did nothing for them. That made Ken Miles a celebrity, not their car.
“And if you look at it through the ruthless, but clear agenda of a marketing executive, the victory is only a victory if it's a victory for the company, and not for an individual. And that to me is neither evil nor good.
“Beebee is as as focused and perhaps narcissistic about his goal as Ken Miles is about his,” he continued.
“It just so happens that Ken Miles' goal is more romantic for us.”
With regards to its subtext, Le Mans ’66 bears comparison to Chef, a 2014 film made by Iron Man director Jon Favreau about a top-tier restaurateur who finds greater happiness in a small, personal project, which Favreau has admitted was based on his experience making an indie film after being a part of the Disney machine – but Mangold’s film seems to have a more optimistic conclusion.
After all, as the historical record shows Miles and Shelby did end up triumphing at Le Mans, despite the obstacles Ford put in their way. And Mangold seems to hope that engaging, important cinema can push through in a similar way.
“For me this idea that we've bifurcated or segregated our movies into kind of adult films that are moving or interesting, and action films that are predestined for 13 year olds, and are just kind of a sensory overload of sound and fury – that’s really disturbing,” he told us.
“My absolute mission that I try to succeed at every time is to say 'wouldn't it be great if we had a movie that impressed us with its muscularity, and also with its tenderness. Or impressed us with its cinema, but also the depth of its characterisations?”
In other words, a film might have a Ford engine, but it needs something else under the bodywork as well – no matter how many fights the creatives need to have to get it there.
Le Mans ’66 is in UK cinemas now