Film Review: ‘Le Mans ‘66’

Zen and Art of 7,000 rpm

There were many positive distant rumblings after James Mangold’s ‘Le Mans ‘66’ (2019) played at various film festivals around the world, but nothing prepared me for the full-throttled effect of sitting down in pole position in front of an IMAX screen, waiting on the grid for the lights to GO! GO! GO!

And GO! they did, they went dark, and the roar of engines began to rage, getting louder, and remaining in the dark, doing a lap of the entire room, passing from speaker to speaker, eyes and ears trailing the invisible circling mechanical growling prey, waiting for it to leap out of the darkness. It was only seconds into the movie, we hadn’t actually seen a single frame, and I already was 100% on board, it sounds stunning, and the weirdest thing is, I’m not even a motor racing fan, but I am a fan of fantastic story telling. The director that brought so much heart, emotion and pathos to the super(mutant)hero world of ‘Logan’ (2017) has done it again, grounding what is effectively an alien world down to the level of a personal emotional engagement, where the subjects journey becomes your journey.

It’s pretty much guaranteed that the Le Mans story is far more enjoyable the less you know the history, as you literally have no idea what is around the next hairpin corner, as the landscape blasts by at 200+mph, with death possibly moments away. We’re all aware of our own mortality, but there’s not many amongst us who not only spend years (and millions) building machines to get you to your final breath much, much faster. Then of course there’s the folk who actually drive these life span crushing monsters.

Carroll Shelby (Mat Damon) was a good old (young) boy Texan who had the privilege and experience of winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in 1959 (the only American to ever do so), the highlight of his racing career, he retired after that and focused on the design and building of racing cars. 
The 60s were a time of radical change where Baby Boomers started earning significant amounts of money and wanted to live in a much faster care free world than their parents had. This brought great changes, but also much heart ache to companies who were trying to cash in, but didn’t know how to.

Trundle forward the Ford Motor Company who had the somewhat old guard establishment (and direct family member) Henry Ford II (beautifully played by Tracy Letts) at the helm, and somewhat irate at the apparent demise of his company, the company that the young had zero interest in buying their cars from, as it’s what their parents drove.

Dramatic change was needed, and in a movie with so many opposing contrasting personalities, ideas, beliefs and butting heads, it was quite a bold move by Ford II (after he challenged the entire company for ideas or they would be sacked) to jump into the world of motor racing, to create prestige, and products (fast cars) that the youth would want to buy. Ford didn’t have a racing team, so one immediate option was to invest/buy the financially struggling but constant trophy winning Italian Ferrari company. Without giving too much away, the outcome significantly influenced the competition that was to unfold, for decades. 

What screams out of the pit stop, is literally a nonstop race to beat the Italians, by any means necessary. It would seem a pretty simple straight forward goal, where everyone is united in the common quest to beat the foreigners, using that infamous can do American grit, spit and mettle. But no, old analogies really needed to be upgraded to consider marketing departments full of utterly useless self-serving folk, these new analogies or fables will of course be designed by committee, and will of course result in what normally happens in such situations, nothing. Of the back of this movie, it really makes you wonder that America has managed to achieved anything, ever.

But there are titans in the mix. Shelby, Henry Ford II and in particular Ken Miles (Christian Bale) who represents not only the ordinary/extra ordinary man, but also the epitome of EVERYTHING marketing don’t want, ie honesty. Miles was from just outside Birmingham, and after serving time in the Second Word War moved to America where he enhanced his mechanic and driving skills to such an extent that he was building his own modified MGs and winning vast amounts of races. He was the perfect candidate/driver to join in this new quest to win Le Mans. Much to the ire of the Ford marketing department, and in particular the cretinous Leo Beebe (fantastically played by Josh Lucas).

So ensues a non stop battle with physics, science, personalities, personal demons, barriers that are real, and ethereal, the limits that nature dictates, and the limits we inadvertently place upon ourselves, but also the ones placed upon us by folk who clearly don’t know anything about anything, and are incapable of dreaming higher possibilities (yep, that’s the marketing team again), as genuine and true unique individuals have the vision, and the actual ability to reach these pinnacles.

As mentioned, I’m not a petrolhead, and knew small elements of the story. It’s absolutely the case going into this, that the less you know, the better. On the tarmac this is about achieving a particular goal, but the actual fuel that powers it all is completely about human endeavours. The dreams, the possibilities, the moments that get us there, recognising those moments when we are in them, changing gear and flooring it into the future, the great unknowns, the legacies.

The movie is representative of a changing time, that seems eons ago, huge personalities who changed everything, despite the folk with zero personality trying to scupper everything.

Matching the titanic personalities in this tale is a scope of artistry that it deserves, the movie looks just incredible (it truly deserves IMAX viewing), stunning sound, outstanding racing scenes, it roars with a full throttle beating heart of conviction and integrity. The performances throughout are winning podium worthy (even if Bale’s accent is a tad Peaky Blinders) and it is an incredibly enjoyable movie, irrespective of your interest/lack of in the sport.

There’s a couple of moments when Shelby and Miles mention, like a mantra, the concept of 7,000 rpm being the ultimate sweet spot for man and machine to effectively reach a higher state, a racing nirvana. All that goes on, the thinking, dreaming, building, years of racing, redesigning, sacrifices, sufferings, determination is all to achieve this state of being, this enlightenment irrespective of the win or loss. Not only is the movie about this quest, it is it.

10/10 ‘Le Mans ‘66’ is out now.