IN RECENT years, film makers appear to have realised the annals of motor racing history are littered with tales that are ripe for the big screen treatment.
In 2013, the Niki Lauda vs James Hunt rivalry was told in Rush, while Ayrton Senna (2010) and Frank Williams (2017) have also had their incredible stories told in movie theatres, to great critical acclaim.
Now, nearly 50 years after the classic Steve McQueen film Le Mans was released, it’s time for endurance racing to have another chance to shine in the cinematic spotlight, via blockbuster biopic Le Mans ’66.
Despite its name, only the final portion of the film is dedicated to the now-legendary on-track showdown between Ford and Ferrari at Circuit de la Sarthe in 1966.
Director James Mangold — who previously helmed critically-acclaimed movies Cop Land (1997), Walk the Line (2005), 3:10 to Yuma (2007) and Logan (2017) — takes his time building up to the race itself, placing a far greater emphasis on the two characters at the heart of the story he wants to tell: the stetson-wearing sports car constructor Carroll Shelby, portrayed by Matt Damon, and his Birmingham-born development driver Ken Miles, played by Christian Bale.
Echoing the development of the V8-powered racer Miles and Shelby helped create, Le Mans ’66 starts off slowly (with a disappointingly low-octane recreation of the 1959 Le Mans 24 Hours, at which Shelby took victory with British driver Roy Salvadori in Aston Martin’s only Le Mans winner, the DBR1) before building up the pace, gradually setting up its characters and plot threads before they’re brought together at the end of the first act.
Having entered top gear, however, the film thunders along at a rate that does an admirable job of disguising its hefty 152-minutes run time, helped no end by grittier second act driving sequences and the heavy-weight cast, all of whom fire on all cylinders throughout.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the stand-out performances belong to Damon and Bale, and it’s a delight watching their respective, contrasting interpretations of the savvy Shelby and the maverick Miles bounce off one another on screen. This is, essentially, a buddy movie more than a racing film.
The pair’s relationship is tested once Ford’s bureaucratic management structure and interfering suits enter the picture (pun very much intended), and Shelby has to juggle the demands of maintaining his friendship and working relationship with the highly volatile Miles, who’s clearly a fine racer and engineer but struggles to win friends in the racing world, from scrutineers to sponsors.
Shelby is much more adroit at simultaneously satisfying the demands of the Blue Oval’s directors, paper pushers and marketing men, who write off Miles as not being “a Ford man”, and his prodigal engineer and test driver, who is portrayed as an essential element in making the Ford GT40 a Ferrari-beating machine.
Le Mans ’66 starts off slowly, but the film reaches a thunderous pace when it finds its stride
What makes the film appealing to those not particularly enthused by motor sport or engineering are the many contemplative moments chez Miles, especially those between the effervescent Brummie and his idolising son. In one scene, Miles takes young Peter out onto the airport-based test track and asks if he can see the perfect lap. “It’s out there,” he assures Peter. “But not everyone can see it.”
Lighthearted sequences permeate the frequent jeopardy, including the pivotal moment that Enzo Ferrari tells the visiting Ford bods in no uncertain terms what to do with their buyout offer; a laugh-out-loud scene in which Miles and Shelby come to blows outside Miles’ home in California, while Mollie Miles (Ken’s wife) unfolds a deckchair and spectates; and a bit of light-fingered foul play from Shelby during the final race that causes much gesticulation and shouting in the Ferrari pit.
The cinematography perhaps doesn’t quite have the visual dynamism and intensity of the camerawork in Rush, but Le Mans ’66 is without question an astonishingly lavish looking movie, with the scenes during the 24 Hours of Le Mans itself doing an impeccable job at recreating the vibrant atmosphere and huge scale you’d expect from one of the largest events on the motor racing calendar. The moment Miles walks from the back of his pit garage to the front, and you see the packed grandstands at the 1966 race, will cause many racing enthusiasts’ jaws to drop.
Quite possibly the most visually-arresting sequence comes earlier in the film. Miles is tinkering away in the Shelby workshop late at night while listening to the GT40’s Le Mans debut race in 1964 — an event from which he’s been barred by Ford — live on the radio. The roar of engines echoes through the garage while the lights from the taxiing aeroplanes project panning silhouettes of various Shelby racing cars onto the wall behind. It’s a touchingly atmospheric moment that perfectly encapsulates Miles’ efforts to control his temper and ego, setting up his role as a lead driver for the ’66 race.
Appropriately enough, Le Mans ’66 really gets its foot down at the racing finale. While McQueen’s Le Mans still has the edge over Mangold’s movie when it comes to auto racing authenticity and sense of speed, the on-track action is still thrilling to behold. The stand-out sections easily belong to the beautiful shots of Miles’ GT40 and its chief Ferrari 330 P3 rival charging at full speed in the pouring rain at night, the headlights piercing through the downpour as the British-American driver turns up the engine revs and hunts down the lead car.
It’s a shame that the film indulges in Hollywood racing clichés in an attempt to ramp up the tension. Crashes come across as slightly lightweight CGI-fests (especially the early smash involving a Ferrari 250 GTO; a car that didn’t race at Le Mans in 1966), and the myriad close-up shots of drivers changing down a gear in order to increase speed while on a straight have echoes of 1969 Herbie movie The Love Bug. It’s out of place in a film that’s otherwise striving to be as authentic and as grounded in reality as possible, and evidence that Mangold is not a fan of racing.
What’s more, Denny Hulme, Miles’ rather more high-profile driving partner in 1966, is all but ignored. This is presumably to simplify the narrative and help with pacing, but the movie suggests Ken Miles was the only reason the No.1 GT40 had a chance that year. In fact, it’s implied that Miles was the main reason the car enjoyed any success in the mid- to late-1960s.
These criticisms aside, Le Mans ’66 is a thoroughly enjoyable auto racing romp that brings to life the more personal and overlooked side of one of the most famous feats in motor sport. Die-hard racing enthusiasts may take grievance with some of the artistic liberties and so-so racing sequences, but its true success lies in the moments away from the track — the weaving of the intriguing tale and the punchy performances from its lead cast.
Enthusiasts and non-enthusiasts alike should enjoy Le Mans 66. See it in the cinema for the best experience (you’ll feel every gearchange) from November 15.