In Review

Le Mans ’66 (Ford v Ferrari) review: high-octane flick races into cinemas

Matt Damon and Christian Bale star in a gripping motorsport tale

Motorsport stories are starting to get the attention they deserve, now that Hollywood appears to be taking an interest in all things racing. 

In 2013, Ron Howard’s Rush gripped audiences with the story of the 1976 Formula 1 World Championship, and the fierce rivalry between McLaren’s James Hunt and Niki Lauda at Ferrari. It was both a critical success and a hit with fans, staying true to the events of that unforgettable season, which saw Lauda survive a horrific crash and come back to take the championship down to the wire.

But there are many such tales of success, tragedy and the bittersweet in the sport - and the latest racing flick, Le Mans ’66, has all of these in spades. 

The movie, known as Ford v Ferrari outside the UK, follows the story of Ford taking on Ferrari at the historic 24 Hours of Le Mans – a race the Italian marque had won seven times before the American carmaker entered in 1964.

For those unfamiliar with the events around the 1966 running of Le Mans, Ford’s entry into the series was largely driven by the American racing driver turned carmaker Carroll Shelby (played by Matt Damon) and British racer-mechanic Ken Miles (Christian Bale). 

Prior to Ford’s Le Mans debut in 1964, the company was on the brink of buying Ferrari until a disagreement over the Italian marque’s racing division led to Enzo Ferrari pulling out of the deal. In a fit of rage, Henry Ford II called upon Shelby to develop a car that can beat Ferrari at its own game. Shelby then turns to Miles to help develop, and eventually race, the iconic Ford GT40. 

As you’d expect from one of Hollywood’s finest actors, Damon brilliantly captures Shelby’s determination to win and his cunning ability to stay one step ahead of both his rivals and team. 

But Bale’s portrayal of Miles is utterly superb. While his accent is more Yorkshire than Birmingham, where Miles was from, Bale shows a man who was devoted to racing but was torn over the effect it had on his family. It’s a great performance and proves once again just how versatile an actor Bale is. 

You won’t see its name in the credits, but the GT40 racer is arguably the movie’s third star. The car, built in the UK before being shipped to Shelby’s team in America, looks as futuristic now as it would have done back in the 1960s, while the roar of its V8 engine will get the hairs on your arm standing on end.

The on-track action is brilliant, too. Le Mans looks stunning, devoid of the safety barriers and modern pit facilities of today. The movie manages to highlight all the aspects of racing that make it fun, fast and dangerous – without going into the technicalities that only the hardcore motorsport fan would understand.

True, there will be a few moments that will make car fans wince. Miles, for instance, edges out a rival on the circuit’s 3.7-mile Mulsanne Straight by simply pressing down harder on the accelerator. If that were real life, he’d be flat on the gas pedal the moment he had turned on to the straight. 

This, however, is a Hollywood interpretation, not a documentary-style film akin to Senna from 2010. There will be moments that don’t quite match up with the reality of racing, or take liberties with real events, but it will still appeal to both racing fanatics and movie-goers in equal measure. 

Perhaps the name of the film in the UK is truer to the race itself than the title chosen outside of Britain. Le Mans ’66 is, at first, about Ford taking the fight to Ferrari at a race that the Italian marque had been dominating. But it’s the events leading up to the race, the heated arguments in the Ford boardroom and the rise of Miles that will keep audiences on the edge of their seats.

This isn’t just the story of two car giants going toe-to-toe on the track; it’s the retelling of one of motorsport’s most remarkable tales.

Le Mans ’66 is in cinemas now.

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