Le Mans 66 is a film about myth-making.
Specifically the act of rewriting history to aggrandize the already impressive feats of two people into legend at the cost of everyone else involved. At the same time, it’s a film resolute in its belief that the lead characters it so lionizes are not just wronged, but perpetual underdogs never getting their day in the sun. It wears its nostalgia with pride and is more reminiscent of a comic book movie for an older audience by design.
By turns painfully earnest and unbearably smug, it’s a feel-good sports movie so single minded about celebrating its heroes that the adoration nearly suffocates all else.
Christian Bale and Matt Damon are Ken Miles and Carroll Shelby, two titans of the industry, and the film is absolutely head over heels in love with them. Shelby and Miles themselves are near superhuman, their only failures being that they care too much about their work and don’t play well with others. They can tell what a car needs just by sitting in one, and are so in tune with each others abilities that they can vocalize their actions before they happen. Every major conflict in the film is settled either through good old salt of the earth hi-jinks, or a beat down. While Damon and Bale sell much of this with their inherently charming personas and game performances, the film clocks in at nearly three hours of this stuff, and ultimately ends up feeling like a series of “and then we did this” tall tales.
Bale especially suffers from this. Usually playing gruff and morose leading men, he seems to relish this opportunity to (ahem) change gears, and his performance does cartwheels between genuinely touching and a Dick Van Dyke-esque ham and cheese show. For every tender scene between him and his family, or his natural brotherly camaraderie with Damon, there’s a dozen where Bale’s ACTOR lights shine in bright neon as he whoops “giddyap!” at his car. It’s fun, but it doesn’t feel human. Instead it’s a loving recollection of an idea, a series of postcards celebrating a person that never quite existed like that.
For much of the film their antics are played as a “boys will be boys” type of adventure story, where two rapscallions take on not just an older generation of squares, but slimy Europeans too. Their inherent goodness is nothing short of an encapsulation of American Greatest Generation values, and the film leans heavily into this by contrasting exaggerated stereotypes against the “aw shucks” looseness of Damon and Bale. One of the first scenes in the film sees Henry Ford II speak to his factory floor, and admonish them for his company doing so poorly. The employees seen are lower working class, and the only time we glimpse minorities in the film. Everyone on the upper level with Ford are middle-aged white men in suits. For a moment it’s possible to think that the film would actually focus on the irony of an ego-driven battle between two major corporations, each willing to throw hundreds of millions into an elaborate dick-measuring contest, but alas, no such luck.
A big part of the problem is that the film doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be about in the first place. Take the title for example. In America the film is called FORD V. FERRARI, while in Europe it’s titled LE MANS 66. The latter of the two is far more apt, as most the film doesn’t really have that much to do with the competition or relationship between Ford and Ferrari. Sure, it serves as part of the catalyst to the events, but the main drama comes from the tenuous relationship between Shelby, Miles, and Ford the company, and it isn’t until the final third of the film that we actually see Ferrari or their car up close. Even at that point the Italian icons get little to do, and their roles as villains are just another group of borderline offensive, hand-waving caricatures sneering from behind their steering wheels. Hilariously (in a scene reminiscent to the atrocious MIDWAY) the film takes the time to offer the American team grudging respect from their competitors, something which, once again, is never offered back. As if the entire history of Italian automobile development happened to them by accident while America wasn’t looking.
Most of the film plays it fast and loose with history, so it’s not like anyone should go in expecting to learn about what really happened at Le Mans in 1966. This is a one sided victory lap celebrating American exceptionalism with everyone else there to react in dramatic ways at feats performed by their betters. Every supporting character ends up doing this for much of the second half of the film, and it’s a shame seeing hugely talented actors essentially pantomime awe for an hour. Even so, and despite their thankless parts, actors like Tracy Letts and Caitriona Balfe bring heart and soul into the film, and without them it would be a far lesser experience.
But even serving as a soundboard of praise is preferable to the treatment that other real life drivers get in the film. They exist only as cannon fodder for spectacularly filmed crashes, or as examples of just how lesser they are to the superior talents of Ken Miles. In one of the most egregious moments like this, the film flat out states that any loss attributed to Miles was because of his ultimately gregarious nature used against him by executives and weaker drivers.
It’s a trope of sport films to begin with, and one that has never failed to confound me. The achievements by everyone involved are already so spectacular and noteworthy that a film has been made about them – why downplay and vilify others further? It’s being a poor winner, especially when you have the power to redefine popular history.
Having said all that, the film is expertly directed and mostly highly entertaining. Director James Mangold is a stone cold professional, and the emphasis the film places on the racing scenes pays off massively. These are some of the best acts of competitive racing ever put on screen, and each race is nothing short of breathtaking. Even when, as the film puts it, it’s turning left for four hours. While the first hour seems to idle a bit too long, by the time Damon and Bale are allowed to take over, the film soars.
LE MANS 66 is not a bad film by any measure, it’s just a disappointing one. It takes a fascinating sport during an intensely interesting point in time, and proceeds to play everything safe. It flirts with heavy topics and questions like why anyone would risk life and limb for the glory of corporations, but doesn’t follow through with any of them.
If its heart was an engine, it would be the biggest, most roaring one on the lot, buried in a Toyota Aygo.