Matt Damon and Christian Bale take pole position in this based-on-a-true-story racing drama from director James Mangold, about the Ford Motor Company's efforts to beat Ferrari at the 24 hour Le Mans race in 1966. It's an engaging story with strong performances and exciting race sequences, but it's occasionally let down by an overly contrived script.
Damon plays Carroll Shelby, a racing driver whose career is cut short due to heart problems shortly after he wins the 1959 Le Mans race. He's subsequently hired by the Ford Motor Company, whose boss, Henry Ford Jr (Tracy Letts) wants him to design a racecar capable of beating Ferrari at Le Mans.
Carroll, in turn, hires hot-tempered Brummie Ken Miles (Christian Bale) as his star driver, seeing him as the only man capable of piloting their car to victory. However, they encounter resistance from Ford exec Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), who doesn't think Miles is suitably on-brand and takes steps to undermine them at every turn.
Damon and Bale are both terrific in the lead roles. Damon's Shelby is impressively laid back and level headed, but he's still given to moments of mischief, most notably when, in the film's best scene, he locks Beebe in an office and takes Ford for a high-speed spin in the newly-minted GT40 Mark 1. By contrast, Bale gives a full-on, high-octane performance as Ken, full to the brim with Brummie bluster and crowd-pleasing swearing. It's a consistently delightful performance that's peppered with little details, such as the way he talks to the car like it's a horse (“Come on, gel”, etc).
The supporting turns are equally strong, particularly Letts as the insecure, yet fear-inducing Ford, and Outlander's Caitriona Balfe, who works wonders with the potentially thankless role as Ken's wife, Mollie. There's also strong work from rising star Noah Jupe as Ken's adoring son, though Jon Bernthal is disappointingly under-used as Ford exec Lee Iacocca, whose idea it was to take on Ferrari in the first place.
A two-and-a-half hour movie about racing is going to stand or fall on its racing sequences and fortunately, Mangold's direction is more than up to the task, staging each one a little differently (beginning with Shelby's almost surreal victory at Le Mans) and making them both easy to follow and genuinely thrilling. They are further enhanced by state-of-the-art sound design that ensures every VROOM hits you square in the chest, quickening the pulse of petrolheads and racing newbies alike.
The film scores highly in terms of its colourful characters and the actual racing, but it loses a few points when it comes to the script. In particular, it constantly feels like key elements are missing, most notably the fact that the Italians barely feature in the film, which is odd, considering that they're meant to be Shelby and Miles' main adversaries – you don't even learn the name of the main Ferrari driver. (Perhaps that explains why the title was changed).
Unfortunately, the script's flaws don't end there. Though Josh Lucas (Hollywood's go-to guy for slimy no-good types) is on typically excellent form as the conniving Beebe, his actions don't make any sense for this story, as it's hard to believe one of Ford's own marketing men would try to sabotage the race from the inside. To that end, it feels very much like manufactured conflict, and it fails to convince as a result.
Despite its occasionally baffling script decisions, Le Mans '66 is well made and impressively acted, with Mangold's pacey direction ensuring that the 150 minute running time never drags. Do yourself a favour and see it in a cinema screen with the best possible sound system.