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That calls for a nice cup of tea.

Le Mans '66
aka Ford v Ferrari
(2019)

(SPOILERS) I didn’t have any great expectations for this one, partly because motor-related movies tend to be merely serviceable, by dint of marrying the grinding metal to elementary melodrama (to frequent audience apathy). Partly because James Mangold has never truly risen above the status of a competent journeyman. Yes, I know he gets all those raves for Logan, but Wolverine’s last round struck me as both overly derivative and in need of a couple more rewrites. Or maybe a couple less. Le Mans '66 might be his most satisfying movie, however, which isn’t to say it’s some kind of automotive miracle, but it successfully flourishes the biographical movie card in never less than immersive, kinetic fashion – even when it’s all talk – and at times even musters a veneer of the visually poetic, of the sort that brings to mind the best of Michael Mann (who gets a producer credit, and had been scheduled to direct a version of the film, inspired by AJ Baime’s Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans, as far back as 2011. Prior to that Brad Pitt had been involved, and after, Joseph Kosinski was attached for a spell).

Mangold and writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller have fashioned an irresistible underdog story, even though, at face value, that underdog is the behemoth of the Ford motor company going up against the not so mighty Ferrari. But this is an adventure couched in technical skill and masterful driving – and the idiosyncrasy that goes with it – and in practice is much more focussed on the internal ructions and struggles for power that beset Carrol Shelby’s (Matt Damon) attempts to bring a Ford car to Le Mans, and win, than it is on the two competing car manufacturers.

That might have been a flaw, but for the most part, you don’t feel it; the Italians are the bad guys at a distance, provisioned with no personalities within their Ferrari team, and limiting Remo Girone’s mastermind Enzo Ferrari to one, admittedly very memorable, speech in which he verbally savages Henry Ford II - "He said you're not Henry Ford. You're Henry Ford II" – and snubs the Ferrari buyout offer (which provides the motivation to best Ferrari at his own game, although Fiat’s purchase of the company didn’t actually happen until 1968). Instead, the quest and uphill struggle is everything, and all the more enthralling if, as in my case, you go in unfamiliar with the details of the story and the film’s inevitable deviations from straight-and-narrow facts (of course, this is intrinsic to any movie adaptation, so it’s somewhat disingenuous to feign disappointment or disenchantment when they do the expected).

Yes, advance warning to the non-motorhead might sometimes have been helpful, such as the nature of Le Mans as a relay race (don’t look at me like that), an aspect that instantly instilled a hankering for more than three lines from Ken Miles’ (Christian Bale) co-driver. But such are the economies of a still two-and-a-half-hour film; made as a Netflix series, we could doubtless have indulged the interactions of the all three Ford cars and drivers, and encountered choice exchanges with the competing teams. Le Mans '66 hones in on the essentials, delivering them expertly for the most part.

There is one glaring issue, however. Shorn of depicting Ferrari as the villains, one “has” to be manufactured, and duly surfaces in the form of Josh Lucas, who might have stepped straight off the set of Hulk, transposing exactly the same character to Leo Bebbe; he has all the subtlety of a moustache-twirling B-movie Machiavelli. So set on sabotaging Ken Miles’ prospects is Bebbe – on the grounds Ken doesn’t fit and isn’t a team player, an element that appears to have been grossly exaggerated at best – that he does everything but sprinkle tacks on the track and knife his tyres. The real Bebbe may have engaged in arguments over micromanagement (actually with Shelby’s predecessor), and it appears he did object to Miles’ risk taking, but such aspects are inflated into a cartoon figure who does a disservice to and slightly undermines the strong work almost everywhere else. Le Mans '66 is a relatively mature picture, except when Lucas is grinning maliciously. One can accept the need to make Shelby and Miles the creatives bucking the system as a fuel to the narrative (whereas they were really just two among the many working to a united goal), but there are limits.

Jon Bernthal contrastingly gets to play the likeable suit, Ford VP Lee Iacocca, and it’s nice to see him notplaying a psycho. Tracy Letts makes for a commandingly irascible Henry Ford II, abrasive and cocooned in his ivory tower, but relatively reasonable when cornered – until he then recants. One memorable scene finds Shelby taking Ford II for a spin in the Ford GT40, after which he readily, shakily agrees to Miles as the driver.

Damon and Bale are both on hugely winning form, and have genuine chemistry (that said, Matt always seems to get on with everyone). Damon makes it all look easy as the former Le Mans champ now popping heart pills and navigating the treacherous boardrooms and temperamental pits. Bale, donning a Brummie brogue, manages to buck the legend that he just isn’t likeable and isn’t much of anything when he isn’t concealed behind a mask or torturing himself with weight loss or gain. Miles is the instinctive, unguarded heart of the picture, even though Shelby provides the reflective sheen (and the poetic contemplation over soaring music as we hurtle round a sunset track), and his attitude and honesty ensure he stands out from the subterfuge and dirty tricks.

A significant slice of Miles’ domestic life is also depicted (Shelby appears to have none), with both Catriona Balfe and Noah Jupe turning in immensely likeable performances as his son and daughter. Yes, the scene where Mollie Miles takes Ken on a breakneck drive in order to make him fess up to his employment prospects is a little on the excessively embellished side, but Bale and Balfe make it work. Kids in fare like this can easily let the side down, but there’s nothing winsome about Peter Miles, and the foreshadowing scene in which team engineer Phil Remington (Ray McKinnon, so effective as the preacher in Deadwood) delicately explains the reasons for Ken surviving a car wreck turned inferno, is one of the most affecting in the picture.

I figure a picture must be doing something right if I, as a resolute non-driver, am engaged not just by the racing but also the technicalities of the development. Nevertheless, it’s on the track that the picture truly comes into its own, and while there’s surely some CG augmentation during the race scenes, this an immediacy and tangibility absent from the also decent relatively recent Rush. Mangold charts the progress of the project with a clear vision of the end goal, from the disappointment of Miles being cast aside from Le Mans ’65, after going for broke in developing a car in ninety days, to his win at Daytona and then the grand finale on a benighted course. The facts of the three Ford cars crossing the finish line together are here squarely down Bebbe’s nefariousness, but if Miles was undoubtedly submitting to his instructions, the reality wasn’t nearly as sinister since the real Shelby, to his regret, was on board with the idea. Either way, it’s a cruel rebuke to Miles’ magnanimous act that he can only claim the silver, and a testament to his character that he shrugs it off.

It’s been speculated that Le Mans '66 stands a chance of a Best Picture Oscar nod, and with up to ten nominees, that seems quite feasible, although it generally seems to be a picture that has been well, rather than ecstatically, received. If it does get a nomination, it’s surely destined to go down as solid filler to make up numbers, which rather under-recognises its pedigree. The biopic genre rarely displays more than competency, but Le Mans '66 furnishes it with some genuine flair.


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