Le Mans ’66 – Review

Worth seeing: for the classic cars roaring round the racing tracks, rather than any kind of convincing character drama
Director:James Mangold
Featuring:Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Caitriona Balfe, JJ Feild, Jon Bernthal, Josh Lucas, Noah Jupe, Tracy Letts, Wallace Langham
Length:152 minutes
Released:15th November 2019


In the early 1960s, Ford was in a bit of a slump. Its owner, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) was desperate to find a new direction to boost the car giant’s fortunes.

When one of his managers (Jon Bernthal) pointed out Ferrari’s success was based more on its racing team than its commercial sales, Ford (the man, rather than the company) decided to buy Ferrari, but his offer was knocked back.

Ford wouldn’t accept that. If he couldn’t buy Ferrari, he’d beat Ferrari, and he made as much money available as was necessary to set up a Ford racing team that could beat Ferrari at the grueling Le Mans endurance race.

A former Le Mans winner, Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) agrees to take on the project and hires the unorthodox British ex-pat Ken Miles (Christian Bale) as their chief engineer and lead driver.

Against the odds, Shelby and Miles have to set up a team, design and build a world-beating car – a task made all the more difficult when some of Ford’s top executives took against their loose cannon of a star driver.


The glamour of motor racing is no stranger to the big screen, with the testosterone-fuelled, gas-guzzling antics of racing cars sharing many of the same emotional traits as cinema – the excitement, the rise of the underdog, the heart-pumping emotion.

Here, there’s an added layer of office politics which adds an interesting twist to the complexity of the narrative; in the US, the film was called Ford vs Ferrari, but with Ford’s own management proving to be almost as much of an obstacle to its own team’s success as the rival car maker, it might as well have been called Shelby & Miles vs Ford & Ferrari.

Even following the necessary Hollywood-style roller-coaster narrative, politics plays its part in the denouement. After what, at times, is a thrilling and uproarious petrol-head fantasy, the film’s coda is peculiarly downbeat – real-life is real-life, but the film could have ended after the eponymous race and left the audience with a sweeter taste in the mouth.

The race sequences are generally thrilling – although there’s often a little too much fast-cutting pedal-shots, which doesn’t really add much to the excitement and the test drives frequently provide more of the thrills.

Matt Damon is as loveable as you’d expect but the British actor Christian Bale – encumbered with one of the most peculiar English accents since Dick van Dyke’s in Mary Poppins – is a little harder to accept. His passion for cars and dedication to his cause are admirable but his cantankerous approach doesn’t quite fit with someone who knows what’s required to get the job done.

The accents grow even more peculiar when you consider Irish actress Caitriona Balfe’s English effort as his wife – and that of Noah Jupe, as their son, who wouldn’t yet have been speaking when the family moved to the US. And hearing these odd English accents say such phrases as “I’m going some place” and “Can you throw out the garbage?” just compounded the viewing discomfort.

If you can forget about the accents, which will be harder for British audiences, Bale effectively portrays Miles as a man who has cars running through him like a stick of rock – from his knowledge of the mechanics to the ability to control them – but his family life always feels like an unnecessary add-on to a film that doesn’t need to be over two and a half hours long; you could race a Grand Prix in less time.

Much of the drama seems to have been manufactured, with the chain of command within Ford chopping and changing as often as the endurance race drivers, as if to provide fuel for the political side of the story. But this does at least result in some of the more human moments of the film – such as Ford, the man, experiencing the fruits of his investment first hand.

The set-up of the film ensures that the winner of the Le Mans ’66 is never really in doubt, taking much of the drama out of the narrative and there’s no doubt that despite the result, Ferrari had the more romantic car and its name remains considerably more glamorous, five decades later, which – perhaps – cocks a snook at the villains of the piece – confirming that the UK distributor was right to  change the title.