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Hannah Woodhead

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Le Mans ’66 – first look review

Christian Bale and Matt Damon banter and bicker their way through James Mangold's slick racing biopic.

Sometimes you don’t know you needed to see something until it’s placed right in front of your eyes. Case in point: Matt Damon and Christian Bale tussling like small children on a manicured lawn while Catriona Balfe looks on in quiet amusement. James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari (or Le Mans ’66 for UK cinema-goers) understands the absurd, testosterone-fuelled world in which it takes place. Yet rather than opting for total, po-faced stoicism, Mangold’s way into this world is through a fascinating, complicated, often tested friendship. The film bears the name of two car manufacturing giants, yet it’s really about a different pair of automotive legends: Carol Shelby and Ken Miles.

Together the pair were charged with developing a racing car that could beat Enzo Ferrari’s team at the Le Mans 24 hour race in 1966, at the request of Henry Ford II, who had set his sights on the title in a bid to challenge conservative perceptions about his family’s firm. Somehow, Mangold has made a two and half hour movie out of this rather dry-sounding source material, and most pleasingly, it’s entertaining even to someone with absolutely no skin in the racing game.

The film’s success is the result of the way it grounds the story in the relationship between Shelby (Matt Damon) and Miles (Christian Bale). The leads display such an easy rapport with each other that they really sell this tumultuous partnership, creating a sense that, despite their differences, Shelby and Miles were brought together by a shared understanding of what drives them – quite literally.

It’s not as if either role is a particular stretch for these actors, but they’re entertaining enough to observe. Also delightful is Tracy Letts as Ford II, a grumbling bulldog of a man who has an incredible scene with Bale when Miles takes Ford for a spin in their new race car. As you may expect from such an aggressively American movie, the Italians fair less well, reduced to a petty, preening bunch of overconfident cartoon villains.

The race scenes are well-choreographed and staged — even knowing the outcome to start with, the journey is the destination, as they say. There’s some slightly twee voice-over work from Damon than bookends the film and strays toward the petrol head machismo of the Fast & Furious franchise, but for the most part, Mangold avoids the temptation to go too heavy on the schmaltz. It also gives you a new appreciation for the complexity of automobile engineering, and the fearlessness of those who get behind the wheel of the fastest cars on the planet.

Wisely Mangold avoids painting the only female character in the film – Ken’s wife Molly, played by Catriona Balfe – as a hand-wringing shrew. Quite the opposite: she’s supportive, under the proviso that Ken is completely honest with her about his ambitions. A film about the car industry in the ’60s was never going to be a feminist jamboree, so it’s at least good to see Balfe and Bale as partners rather than an absent husband and a pining wife.

It’s a handsome, entertaining yarn – perhaps not one for the history books, but certainly enjoyable. You might call it Peak Dad Cinema – it’s as reassuringly middle-brow as a Sunday roast and Inspector Morse on the telly afterwards. Yet Mangold does his best to inject energy and humour into a story that might otherwise only appeal to car freaks.

Interestingly, another battle between titans played out in the development of Ford Vs Ferrari, between James Mangold and Michael Mann, who has been trying to make an Enzo Ferrari biopic for years, and initially Bale was set to play the lead (Hugh Jackman is now slated, but there’s still no sign of the film). Mangold might have crossed the finish line first, but time will tell if he or Mann has produced the better film.

Published 11 Sep 2019

Tags: Christian Bale James Mangold Matt Damon Toronto Film Festival

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