Racing films can be a bit hit or miss with me. For every brilliant piece of filmmaking like Senna or Rush you get other racing films that seem to think that just the idea of racing is enough to create a compelling film. So Le Mans ’66 whilst interesting, especially with James Mangold directing, never really stood out to me, although I was always intending to see it in the cinema. I wasn’t though planning on seeing it early, that came about through a secret screening held by Cineworld recently where this was the film chosen and it was the right call. Whilst not perfect, this is still a solid racing film.
The film follows the efforts by Ford, suffering from a decline in sales, to regain status by winning the 24 Hours at Le Mans race. When efforts to buy Ferrari to achieve this fall apart, Ford hires Carroll Shelby, a former winner of Le Mans (for Aston Martin) and car designer to create a car which can win the race. Whilst Shelby believes he can make the right car, he knows that the right driver is needed as well, so chooses Ken Miles as a driver. Whilst Shelby and Miles clash with Ford higher ups, their efforts result in the creation of the GT40, culminating in the 1966 24 Hours at Le Mans. Now in terms of themes there are interesting ideas brought up regarding doing what you feel you’re good at for a career and the danger involved in racing, the fear that something could go wrong with the car and result in the car crashing and killing the driver, putting some tension throughout the film. There are also interesting ideas at play about the relationship between the corporate side of Ford and the racing side and how publicity, sales and personal grievances by the managers at Ford hamper the efforts of Shelby and Miles to create the right car. As part of this, we also see how the natural experience of racing comes into play and how this intuition and in depth knowledge can trump computer simulations and calculations. I do think we don’t get enough time devoted to the financial issues of Ford or fully understanding the rivalry between Ford and Ferrari, but I think it was the right call overall to focus on Shelby and Miles. I also had a bit of an issue with the pacing of the film, particularly at the end in that it feels a bit rushed at the end whilst some elements in the second act have a bit too much time given to them, and I feel a greater balance of time could have been given in the film.
The performances I thought were pretty good as well. Matt Damon as Shelby does a good job showing Shelby’s passion for racing and how, even though he’s not behind the wheel, he still loves the sport, along with showing his thought process behind the compromises he needs to make with Ford. Christian Bale as Miles meanwhile is the MVP of the film. It’s been a while since Christian Bale has been fun in a film, and he’s clearly having fun here, showing Miles as a caring family man and relishing the more bombastic and sweary aspects of the character and this element of fun lights up the screen and makes every scene with Miles gold. The rest of the performances, mainly Jon Bernthal, Caitriona Balfe, Tracy Letts and Noah Jupe, are pretty good but they aren’t given enough time to really create unique characters.
The technical elements of the film are excellent. The racing scenes in particular are expertly done, creating a brilliant sense of speed throughout the scenes, keeping the tension in these scenes strong and creating an exhilarating feeling throughout. These scenes also do a good job at showing the danger racers at the time faced and all the things that could go wrong. The cinematography and editing in these scenes is excellent adding to the raw thrill these scenes provide. The music, production design and costume design meanwhile effectively create the atmosphere of the mid-60s and the scenes at the tracks show the different stages of car design and the works undertaken through car design in a manner that makes it easy to understand for a non-racing fan.
Overall, Le Mans 66 is a pretty good racing film on a whole. The racing scenes are exhilarating and Christian Bale adds a lot of charm and humour to the film, but I do think that some pacing issues and, to me, underdeveloped elements of the film prevent it from being a truly great racing film on the level of Senna or Rush.
My Rating: 3.5/5