Skip to main content

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.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

You must find the keys for me!

Doctor Who The Keys of Marinus
Most of the criticisms levelled at The Keys of Marinus over the past 50 years have been fair play, and yet it’s a story I return to as one of the more effortlessly watchable of the Hartnell era. Consequently, the one complaint I can’t really countenance is that it’s boring. While many a foray during this fledgling period drags its heels, even ones of undeniable quality in other areas, Marinus’ shifting soils and weekly adventures-in-miniature sustain interest, however inelegant the actual construction of those narratives may be. The quest premise also makes it a winner; it’s a format I have little resistance to, even when manifested, as here, in an often overtly budget-stricken manner.

Doctor Who has dabbled with the search structure elsewhere, most notably across The Key to Time season, and ultimately Marinus’ mission is even more of a MacGuffin than in that sextology, a means to string together what would otherwise be vignettes to little overall coherence…

Have you betrayed us? Have you betrayed me?!

Blake's 7 4.13: Blake

The best you can hope for the end of a series is that it leaves you wanting more. Blake certainly does that, so much so that I lapped up Tony Attwood’s Afterlife when it came out. I recall his speculation over who survived and who didn’t in his Programme Guide (curious that he thought Tarrant was unlikely to make it and then had him turn up in his continuation). Blakefollows the template of previous season finales, piling incident upon incident until it reaches a crescendo.

There are times when I miss the darkness. It is hard to live always in the light.

Blake's 7 4.12: Warlord

The penultimate episode, and Chris Boucher seems to have suddenly remembered that the original premise for the series was a crew of rebels fighting against a totalitarian regime. The detour from this, or at least the haphazard servicing of it, during seasons Three and Four has brought many of my favourite moments in the series. So it comes as a bit of a jolt to suddenly find Avon making Blake-like advances towards the leaders of planets to unite in opposition against the Federation. 

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

So you made contact with the French operative?

Atomic Blonde (2017)
(SPOILERS) Well, I can certainly see why Focus Features opted to change the title from The Coldest City (the name of the graphic novel from which this is adapted). The Coldest City evokes a nourish, dour, subdued tone, a movie of slow-burn intrigue in the vein of John Le Carré. Atomic Blonde, to paraphrase its introductory text, is not that movie. As such, there’s something of a mismatch here, of the kind of Cold War tale it has its roots in and the furious, pop-soaked action spectacle director David Leitch is intent on turning it into. In the main, his choices succeed, but the result isn’t quite the clean getaway of his earlier (co-directed) John Wick.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …