Le Mans 66 – a review

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Adrenalin and true grit are the film’s core values

An idle boast: as the only independence blogger in the whole UK to bring readers a weekly news bulletin on what the iffy car industry is up to that affects our environment, economy, jobs, and engineering innovation, I am delighted to bring you news of a car movie that’s worth the price of the cinema ticket and an over-sized packet of popcorn.

For some odd reason this film is branded Le Mans – 66 in some places and Ford v Ferrari in others. Perhaps the studio – Fox – thought Brexit Brits insulted to see a French name atop a movie poster. That doesn’t stop it being as good as its predecessor, Rush (2013), also a conventional glossy racing saga with great camera work, superb sound effects, terrific performances, creating a grease laden reality.

This film was stuck in development for a long time, the nightmare that defeats filmmakers – such as myself – who have no wish to lose years of their life waiting for faceless guys in suits to decide if you eat or not. Director James Mangold became interested in making it as far back as 2010. It wasn’t until two years ago that he was brought on board to direct. He and the screenwriters decided to focus the story on the two main characters Shelby and Miles instead of the ensemble of previous drafts. Getting the budget down to under $100 million was a hurdle, but what’s on screen makes the most of every cent.

This is a film where manly men do manly things, and woman watch in awe of their manliness. In other words, it’s Hollywood’s bread and butter.

A film like this makes you wonder why people go to see mindless action men movies that teach us bugger all, except the galaxy’s greatest villains always choose America to land their spaceship, preferably the desert, only to be beaten to a pulp by men in silly costumes and tights that never need a zipper.

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Damon and Bale, the latter back to skinny as a stalk of celery

The film bases its plot on the true story of how one man Carroll Shelby and his volatile pal of a racing driver Ken Miles built a car that beat the great Ferrari winning Le Mans, the Ford GT40, and won it not once but three times. Enzo Ferrari was not pleased.

Enzo’s company is still pre-eminent in the must-own lexicon of driver’s sports cars while Ford only reproduced the GT40 supercar. No man worth his leather leggings lusts for a Ford in place of a Ferrari.

What the film doesn’t tell you is how Ford reproduced the car in street legal production form for today’s market of rich men with too much money and not enough penis, a car a mere 40 back-killing inches high, and with less reliability than a go-cart. The gubbings that went into the Ford Le Mans car do not go into the domestic version.

Director James Mangold hasn’t just replicated the tone, structure and aesthetic of racing car flicks, he’s reproduced the excitement and visual quality too. Ford v Ferrari is a two-and-a-half-hour movie that, unlike Ford’s prototype racer, never drags, and doesn’t leave you time for a pit stop. He himself brings to the screen a good track record – Cop Land (1997) and Logan (2017).

There are any number of elements to this film’s high entertainment value: excellent production values, meticulous staging, and two warm and engaging performances from co-leads Matt Damon and Christian Bale. Moments are so visually and viscerally exciting they eliminate the nagging feeling we’ve seen this all before, just not so well made.

As Carroll Shelby, Damon brings his universal image of the all-American American, and that all-American can-do spirit to the role of the driver grounded by heart problems. He’s the man who accepts the Ford company’s challenge to build a Le Mans winning car to beat their hated rivals at Ferrari, after Ferrari himself called Henry Ford II, “a fat Henry Ford wannabe” – which he was. He calls senior Ford executive’s ‘sir’, in that respectful way Americans can convince you they’d never drop an Atomic bomb on anybody.

In later life, a celebrity often interviewed, Shelby was well liked, the man who put a pounding V8 engine under the bonnet of a British Ace Cobra car that transformed the hitherto sedate sports car market. He was known to be boastful and exaggerate his past achievements and his place in them, but was liked all the more for it.

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Aficionados of race cars of yesteryear will enjoy sight of the real thing

Bale, as sterling Brit engineer, and Midlands émigré Ken Miles spends a lot of the movie peppering his speech with phrases of the time such as “a face like a smacked arse”, arse pronounced in a close Birmingham accent. Miles was born in Sutton Coldfield.

“I’d rather die in a car than of cancer” he once commented fatefully, and did, in 1966, a scene unexplained in the narrative. It was a clear, brutally hot day, the track dry and Miles in good health. Nothing is mentioned of mechanical failure. The car, probably too light for its engine power, flipped, crashed, and burst into flames, throwing Miles out and killing him instantly.

Here, Bale is the headstrong, likeable racing driver whose independence of mind and free spirit clashes with the rigid corporate mentality of the sponsoring car manufacturer. Once more Bale has altered his weight radically for the role. According to Damon, Bale lost seventy pounds before filming began. Bale tells he simply didn’t eat, an impressive monk-like discipline that I’m sure in time will affect his health.

Together, the chemistry of the two actors reminded me of Paul Newman and Robert Redford, but with less charisma. For the nosy, I wrote a television commercial for Newman in which he drove his own racing car. Newman was a racing car fanatic. He wanted all the detail of race track culture packed into the commercial. Mangold does that too with an eye for precise detail in his essay on fast driving and faster lives.

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Catriona Balfi doing what wives do in racing films – domestic humdrum stuff

Catriona Balfi plays Ken Miles’ long suffering English wife, doing her best working two jobs to keep a roof over her wayward, penniless mechanic husband’s head and their son. In time it dawns on her that she married a man wedded to racing cars.

Good cinematographers, aided by ace digital wizardry can commit almost anything to the big screen. If Team Mangold employed CGI to pull the feature off, it’s not obvious. There’s no fuzzy images, or people walking stiffly in the background as in an animated backdrop. (The cast list of humans is huge! Some are the expected Scottish mechanics.) Phedon Papamichael as cameraman-in-chief is better known to me as the man who shoots the Espresso adverts starring George Clooney, but after this film he will be in demand for some time to come.

The music is as percussive as one expects in heart pounding speed films, and the editing is of the highest order. Female roles are restricted to Miles’ wife and three secretaries in the Ford office, a disappointment, but then this is a biography of a specific time when women didn’t design racing cars, tinker with a race car’s engine or drive them. There are women race drivers doing all of that today, so I trust we will see one of their stories soon.

When the film shifts into a pseudo spiritual gear – lone figures set against waning sunsets – what is life if full of care moments – I switched off, but that misstep doesn’t last for long.

Should you take your wife, partner or girlfriend to see Le Mans  66 – Ford v Ferrari? – only if you pretend they’re going to see a domestic drama about a divorce between an American and a hot tempered Italian.

  • Star Rating: Four stars
  • Cast: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, John Bernthal, Catriona Balfi
  • Director: James Mangold
  • Writer: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth
  • Cinematographer: Phedon Papamichael
  • Composer: Marco Beltrami, Buck Sanders
  • Adult rating: 12A
  • Duration: 2 hours 29 minutes
  • RATING CRITERIA
  • 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?

 

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