Le Mans '66 (aka Ford v Ferrari) review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
I’ll be honest; racing films tend to bore me. While looking spiffy with multiple machines zooming across a track, some of them spend so much time trying to catch up with the cars and their allure that the picture loses sight of itself, falling back on melodrama to carry. I wasn’t particularly enthused about a picture that seems to be more about the thrill of the race than a more personal sense of winning. But for shifting the race itself to be one of fulfillment and yearning, I must admit that James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari had me wrapped up in the race.
A lot of forces came together for the grand event of Ford competing and winning in the legendary Le Mans race of the 1960s. Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) has run the race before and is now a struggling designer. Ken Miles (Christian Bale) is a WWII veteran struggling to make it as both a mechanic and racer. Fortunately for both of them, the Ford motor company is also struggling and needs them, even if they don’t know it. While the stuffy CEO Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) isn’t so easily swayed by such a suggestion as racing in the Le Mans, Ford’s vice-president Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) seeks out Carroll. Carroll seeks out Ken. And before the two old friends know it, they’re working on a race car for Ford they plan to drive.
Mangold’s direction not only finds a lot of amazing shots but finds something special within the characters. It’s interesting that both Carroll and Ken are not committed to driving a car in Le Mans to make amends or finally beat their rival. If anyone is a rival here, it is Ford. When Carroll is hired, Ken warms him that a large corporation like that will come down on him with conditionals and hold him back from making the fastest vehicle. Sure enough, Ford does come down with harsh demands, specifically that Ken can’t drive as he’s not the image that Ford wants. After all, Henry finds the likes of James Bond to be a deviant not worth chasing and other executives look upon Ken as a beatnik, which could just be their own jargon for ugly people.
On one hand, this kind of framing doesn’t present an immediate conflict but a much different one. The only huge stakes are for Carroll when, at one point, he puts his garage on the line to see if Ken can win in a race to prove he’s worthy of Le Mans. They succeed and from that point forward it’s mostly making sure the executives don’t interfere too much in the process of building and racing, which they constantly do. There is, however, a more engaging concern of whether or not Ken’s car will hold up on the track for going so fast. He can certainly push a car to its limits but whether the car can take it is another story. And as the race proceeds, both beating the other racers and surviving a 24-hour race create becomes intense.
I must admit that the race scenes really got me engaged for how well they are shot. Free of most shakey cam techniques and inappropriate angles, it’s clear what is going on in nearly every scene. Scenes of cars toppling and exploding don’t feel like standard ramping of tension but real concern when considering the possibility of death. This is stressed in a particularly great scene where Ken tests a car just as the brakes go out and the car is set aflame. He gets out just in time but Ken’s son later questions how his dad survived. As long as you get out, Carroll’s assistant stresses, you’ll be fine. This particularly nerve-wracking during the Le Mans as it starts with Ken’s door not closing all the way, leading to the door being smashed into place with a hammer. It’s both a callback to the beginning of the film with its insistence on blunt fixing issues but also a twinge of fear for the race ahead.
There’s a more lingering question about how much Ford screws with racing and the development of car production that never feels fully addressed. But for maintaining focus on both Carroll and Ken as two spirited and emotional geniuses just yearning for cars, their comradery shines bright in the picture. It’s also a strong performance by both Damon and Bale, even if they must get into a scene of fighting each other with groceries. As someone who never quite grasped all the mechanical terms and appreciate the lineage of the story, I found myself so enthralled by Ford V Ferrari on many levels.