Le Mans ’66 is a polished film about a race to win, not about a race.
What you get out of this film may depend on the title you have booked for. But whether you are expecting a film about the 24 hour Le Mans race of 1966 or a film about the rivalry between the Ford and Ferrari motor companies, the resulting story is equally biased.
Le Mans ’66 (as it is called in most European countries) or Ford v Ferrari (as it was first called, in the USA and elsewhere) is essentially about the efforts made by Ford and its contractors to design and build a car to beat Ferrari at the now-famous race in Le Mans in 1966. So we see everything from the day Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) put the call out to turn his company around until the end of the race itself and a few months after, but virtually all from the Ford perspective. We see very little of Ferrari and hear even less.
For the most part, the film – excuse me while I use interchangeable titles – focuses on two men: car designer and former racer himself Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and engineer/driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale). They formed the crux of the project, with everything else surrounding them: family issues, health, corporate politics and so on. Sometimes they resolved those issues, sometimes ignored them, sometimes mitigated them.
So to me, Le Mans ’66 is partly a study of issue management and conflicting motivations in a project team; and a case study of how a clear target can drive success (like Kennedy declaring the USA would get a man on the moon before the decade was out in 1961). It is also a demonstration of the bond between friends which comes from a shared passion. Damon’s Shelby and Bale’s Miles have clear chemistry as both friends and professionals. Their characters – especially the relative priority they give motorsports – are very well drawn and I could not possibly fault the acting on either front. What we do not get though is any development of those characters: the men we meet at the start are just the same people through to the end.
(Although the acting and writing are spot-on in relation to these two characters, the one flaw was Christian Bale’s attempted northern English accent. It really did override the good qualities at times.)
Ford v Ferrari is beautifully made, with incredible race reconstructions and a sense of both time and place that could come straight out of race souvenirs of that time. Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography is full of sharp colors and the production in general riddled with precise details that any period drama could aspire to. It is an enjoyable and carefully constructed drama, with many set pieces and clearly contrived conversations that work towards showing a clear sequence: this is how the race was won. And the final race was bloody exciting.
In essence, James Mangold’s Le Mans ’66 is a brilliant piece of propaganda, just as the conclusion to the race itself was. Both direct their audience to see, feel and believe that corporate America is worth putting one’s faith in. It may look from the trailers like a sporting biopic, but it only looks at a specific period of time for the people and teams concerned. Instead, it is a commercial pat-on-the-back disguised as a biopic… a very engaging one, mind you: that’s how propaganda works.