Frost on Film: Le Mans ’66

One more lap.

In some ways James Mangold’s latest directorial outing is a rare breed as we are not often treated to films about racing cars and the drivers inside. Since the release of Rush in 2013, there hasn’t been anything particularly comparable in cinemas, that is, until now. Le Mans ’66 serves almost as the spiritual cousin to Rush, delivering exhilaration, excitement and energy in spades, tracing the story of two men who fought to beat the odds and win an acclaimed international racing marathon.

Crucially, Le Mans ’66 does not follow directly in the footsteps of Rush. While Ron Howard’s film revolved around the world of Formula 1, Mangold’s story is tailored around a potentially lesser known event but one that is equally as thrilling. Le Mans is an annual 24-hour racing marathon where some of the most famous car dealerships produce a car alongside a team of drivers to race in the ultimate test of durability and desire.

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Rush
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Le Mans ’66 takes a bit of time to reach the point at which this race becomes integral to the narrative but, when this point is reached, the story really starts to soar. We are introduced first to Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) a retired race driver in charge of his own car dealership. Cue the entrance of Henry Ford junior; a pompous, imperious presence of a man who is pissed off at the declining relevance of his father’s company – Ford. As an industrial monolith directed more towards mass production than refined quality and speed, Ford wants a solution that will take his company out of the shadow of the more suave Ferrari corporation. Following elongated narrative exposition, we reach the stage where Shelby is asked to create a car for Ford that can not only compete at Le Mans, but win. To do this, Shelby must not only find the right driver, but design a car fast enough to beat the dominant reigning champions Ferrari.

Matt Damon is charming in the role of Shelby, representing the lovable rogue whose passion for the project is second to none. Yet, his performance is matched by Christian Bale in the role of Ken Miles, the driver tasked with leading the charge at Le Mans. Bale is both funny and passionate as he plays the ultimate non-conformist. However, when behind the wheel, Miles’ charisma shines as he often resorts to singing “I’m H A P P Y” at the top of his lungs. Admittedly, over the reasonably long run time, the narrative of the film does occasionally drag but the star power of Damon and Bale means it never becomes dull or ponderous.

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Mangold has created an experience that is very high octane indeed. This is mainly because the film takes a life of its own when any form of racing is involved. Every time Miles steps into the chassis of the Ford GT, Le Mans ’66 becomes truly mesmerising as the camera stays close to the ground to really give a sense of the throttle and power each car is creating. Tracking shots are almost dance-like in their harmonious movement in time with moving vehicles and the sound editing deserves special mention for its crispness and sheer volume. You can not only hear every gear change, you can feel it too.

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Le Mans ’66 is not perfect but when there is a car on screen it feels pretty flawless. Mangold has chosen to follow the classic tropes of a sports film which is no real issue but this means that curveballs are minimal. Furthermore, the family figures around Ken Miles are not given particular depth as his wife is merely reduced to a supportive figure while Ken’s son is given precious little to work with. At 152 minutes Le Mans ’66 is quite a long film but you don’t really feel it because, even though the board room scenes do slow the tempo, the consistent interspersions of driving maintain the film’s race like pace. And when the third act begins Le Mans ’66 adamantly moves into fifth gear, making for a pretty exhilarating ride.

Stefan Frost

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