There are several interesting things happening in Le Mans ’66 (aka outside Europe: Ford v Ferrari) and not all of them are about cars driving very fast in a circle. I mention this in case, like me, cars driving very fast in a circle is not something that generally appeals to you. There are exceptions to that for me: I thought that 2013’s Rush, a based-on-fact story set in the world of 1970s Formula 1 racing, was one of the best movies of that year, and unexpectedly moving. Le Mans isn’t quite up to the level of Rush — and in fact, this new movie almost entirely proves the point I made in my review of the earlier film about the differences between expensive Hollywood productions and comparatively lower-budgeted independent films. But this is much closer in spirit and tone to Rush than it is to, say, the Fast and Furious flicks.
First, the cars-driving-very-fast-in-a-circle stuff: In the early 1960s, the Ford Motor Company had a marketing problem that it perceived as an image issue — its cars were too stodgy to attract hip young drivers — and it proposed to itself to remedy this by building a race car that would win at 24 Hours of Le Mans, the French endurance race. They went to car designer Carroll Shelby, a former racer and one of the few Americans ever to win Le Mans (which he did in 1959) to build a car for them that could win. Shelby brought US-based British racer Ken Miles onboard as advisor, test driver, and eventual driver.
Now, the more interesting stuff: It might seem at first as if the script — by the brother team Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow) and Jason Keller (Escape Plan, Mirror Mirror) — is setting up the Ford Motor Company, one of the biggest and oldest corporations on the planet, as some kind of underdog. For its main rival at Le Mans, the automobile manufacturer that it needs to beat, is — as you may have guessed — Ferrari, which is dominating the race in the early 60s but is a much smaller company with a much more rarefied magnetism than Ford. Thankfully, Ford-as-underdog, even an unlikely one, never happens, and the real underdogs turn out to be Shelby and Miles, two entrepreneurial creatures trying to maintain their souls while working for Ford.
But there is rivalry there as well! This movie might as well be called Shelby v Miles, and that’s where its central pleasures reside: in the affectionate yet rather oil-and-water relationship between the two men, and in the endearingly prickly performances by Matt Damon (Thor: Ragnarok, Downsizing) as Shelby and Christian Bale (Hostiles (2017), The Big Short) as Miles. Miles is fiercely independent and utterly unimpressed by the might or money of Ford — and certainly not by its design-by-committee ethos. Shelby is slightly more willing to compromise and rather more practical about what it takes to work with the likes of Ford. (Josh Lucas [What They Had, Stolen] as the smarmy Ford exec Shelby is continually bumping heads with might have something to do with changing Shelby’s attitude in this respect.)
Director James Mangold makes very manly movies — Logan, 3:10 to Yuma, Walk the Line — and this is a winning depiction of a very manly friendship (if one that is a tad overearnest). The racing stuff is pretty thrilling too, though mostly only in a technical sense: it looks cool and the roar of the engines is nerve-rattling, especially in IMAX (if there isn’t much actual suspense to it). But Le Mans seems not to realize all the potential it had to be so much more. It feels endlessly on the verge of an epiphany about the era it’s set in, that this brief postwar golden moment that Mangold does such a good job of depicting as relatively carefree is but masking turmoil roiling underneath. It’s hinted at — entirely unwittingly, I have no doubt — in Miles’s wife, Mollie (Outlander’s Caitriona Balfe), a cliché of a supportive wife whose brief complaints about her husband, his work, and his management of their lives — they have a son, Peter (Noah Jupe: A Quiet Place, The Titan) — are quickly smothered. Did she go running to the shelter of a mother’s little helper?
Of course movies such as these usually have little use for women, and even less for anyone else. (Of course there are no nonwhite characters at all here, who might take issue with the era as a golden age, even though much of the film is set in Los Angeles, where Shelby and Miles live and work.) But Shelby and Miles are literally caught in the gap between The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit — that is, 1950s male disillusionment with stifling corporate conformity of the postwar period; both Shelby and Miles are combat veterans of WWII — and the freedom that will be in the offing by the end of the 1960s. They don’t know what’s about to happen, naturally… but the film should. There should be a sense that there’s something forward-looking, something anticipatory, in the freespirited attitude that Miles and Shelby share. The world is about to change — radically — by the time the film is over, but you’d never know it. Apart from some very cool production design and costumes — the sunglasses! the cars! — Le Mans ’66 barely seems to know it’s happening in the 1960s at all.