Yes, defeating Ferrari at the iconic 24 Hours of Le Mans race is the driving force for the film’s central characters, but the real conflict that occurs on screen, rather than being between the two motoring giants, is actually amongst the warring factions of Ford’s own team.
In fact, after an early memorable sequence in which a team of Ford executives journey to Italy to launch a failed takeover of the Italian company, Ferrari are largely relegated to the background, portrayed mainly as vaguely cartoonish villains. Instead, the film predominantly focuses on the attempts of Ford’s own team to build a car worthy of winning the famously challenging race, as designer Caroll Shelby (Matt Damon) teams up with eccentric and obnoxious driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) under the supervision of Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) and slimy executive Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas).
What follows is a tussle for control of the operation between the by-the-book methods of the corporate suits and the more maverick sensibilities of the motorsport diehards – as two very different forms of arrogance come face-to-face. And the conflict that arises here allows for, on the whole, a gripping and entertaining viewing experience.
From the off the film has a certain playful swagger to it, early scenes punctuated by Marco Beltrami’s percussion-heavy score adding a zip and verve to proceedings that instantly engages the viewer.
Bale, as Ken Miles, undoubtedly steals the show. Given how obnoxious the driver can be – he’s variously described as “difficult” and “not a people person” while an early scene sees him throw a wrench at Damon’s Shelby – it would have been easy for this character to become swiftly unlikeable, and that may have been the case in the hands of a lesser actor. But Bale pitches the performance perfectly, excellently evoking the uncompromising attitude of a man who refuses to abide by nonsensical rules – although he’s no doubt aided by the fact his main adversary comes in the shape of the intensely unlikable corporate suit Beebe, compared to whom most characters would seem more palatable.
The frequent scenes of Bale repeatedly declaring “giddy up” and the like from the insides of his car may seem too indulgent for some, but there’s unquestionably a certain thrill to be had in these moments. He’s also helped by excellent chemistry with Damon’s more straight-laced, all-American hero Shelby – who largely shares Miles’ resentment of the Ford executives, albeit in a less antagonistic manner. Amongst the supporting performances, Tracy Letts as Henry Ford II stands out – a scene where he breaks down in tears after being taken for a drive is a particular highlight, while his frank dismissal of James Bond as “a degenerate” during a presentation by a Ford executive provides an early laugh.
Le Mans ’66 is not, however, a film without faults. Many of the scenes involving Miles’ son Peter (through no fault of child actor Noah Jupe) don’t hold up well, seeming like an attempt to add an emotional core to the film that wasn’t particularly required. In fact, the film works perfectly well on an emotional level without these rather twee moments, which often feel slightly forced. Cutaways to Peter during the final Le Mans race, where he literally describes the action while watching on his television at home, seem especially unnecessary.
Some viewers may also take against the framing of Ford – a huge industrialist American company – as some kind of gallant underdog. There’s certainly a degree of American exceptionalism here that may come as a bit of a turn-off for some cinemagoers, although those concerns can be largely assuaged simply by rooting for Shelby and Miles themselves rather than the company as a whole.
Those quibbles aside, there’s an undeniable energy to the film which will make it a sure-fire crowd pleaser – and the film’s thrilling climax at Le Mans makes for exhilarating viewing. The biggest compliment I can pay is that on leaving the screening I was extremely surprised to learn that the film had lasted two-and-a-half hours. Like the Ford GT40 itself, the time zooms by at an astonishing pace.
The film was viewed in ScreenX Format at Cineworld o2 Greenwich, London