REVIEW: ‘Le Mans ’66’ is a Glorious Celebration of What America Wishes It Still (or Ever) Was

Rating: 4 out of 4.

“Charming and throughly enjoyable chemistry between Damon and Bale, with all the glory, heartache and humour – as well as cliche – of the great Sports-Dramas.”

With a run-time of over two and a half hours, Le Mans ’66 threatens to live up to the eponymous race as a test of endurance. Thankfully this is not the case.

Much like the savvy design of the Ford GT40, there has been significant effort on the part of director James Mangold and editor Michael McCusker to reduce drag. Scenes feel almost like bullet points and beats, ensuring a steady pace only to the minor detriment of character exploration and emotional depth. With weaker actors in the star roles, this would perhaps prove to be a fatal flaw, but Matt Damon and Christian Bale (playing Carol Shelby and Ken Miles respectively) exude charm, charisma and chemistry enough to keep the somewhat pre-explored themes afloat. Alongside the beautiful production design somewhat inherent in period pieces set in sixties, this acting partnership is the film’s standout factor. Bale and Damon bring intensely likeable yet complex characters to life – Damon especially nailing the subtleties of emotion that struggle to the surface. 

A self-assured pat on the back of the good old days, Le Mans ’66 basks in a rather cliché serving of 60s Americana, and is, frankly, all the better for it. The film is at its heart, a celebration of what America wishes it still (or ever) was – the celebration of hard-nosed, white-collar boys showing the old money Europeans that the United States has what it takes to not only play their game but – with grit, ingenuity and sheer industriousness – beat them at it. Before you ask, yes, the war comes up a lot.  

The central theme here is a sense of lost ambition – gone is the cowboy, replaced by a dozen faceless men in suits. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Ken is the cowboy, Ford Motors’ fictional company man Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) is the man in a suit, and Carol Shelby along with Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) are somewhere in between. Much of the character drama stems from Shelby and Ford’s inner struggle between these conflicting ideas – the mass-production, bureaucracy and focus-groups versus the hand-crafted, visionary passion. Without getting into the finer details of plot, these themes pay off to an extent, the message ringing above all else being: never compromise for something you don’t believe in.   

The nature of this film is that it is a very niche subject but like all great sports dramas, indeed all great films, you do not need to be an authority on the topic to thoroughly enjoy it. I, a keen motorsport enthusiast, watched with my girlfriend who refers to different manufacturers as breeds of carand we both came away from it having had a great time. That being said, there are plot points that rest on the audience having a basic level of racing knowledge, and so Ken’s son, Peter (Noah Jupe), often fills us in with lines of obvious exposition.

All things considered, despite a few bumps along the road, Le Mans ’66 does exactly what it sets out to do – it makes you feel. The highs are victorious and exhilarating, the lows are utterly devastating. Whilst it lacks that extra something needed to stamp its name into the awards season (for best picture, at least) I have no doubt that it will remain a fan-favourite and an instant classic of the sports-drama genre.

Dir: James Mangold

Prod: James Mangold, Peter Chernin, Alex Young

Cast: Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Jon Bernthal, Tracy Letts, Caitriona Balfe, Noah Jupe, Josh Lucas.