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An iconic racing movie, especially one based on real events and characters, is one that requires just as much, if not more precision than the sport of motor racing itself. Not only is the movie competing against larger-than-life adrenaline-fuelled events that are often emblazoned in fans’ memories, a delicate balance between car and character needs to be maintained to capture audience hearts and to push one right to the edge of his or her seat, without toppling into road rage.
Le Mans ’66, released as Ford v Ferrari in the US, manages to achieve this and then some with a star-studded cast, an iconic director and a legendary tale still regaled by American car-lovers.
The movie starts off with Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) competing in his final race before retiring due to heart complications. To the thumping soundtrack of a heart beat against the backdrop of a racing car, Carroll ruminates, “There’s a point at 7,000 RPMs where everything fades. The machine becomes weightless. It disappears. All that’s left is a body moving through space and time. At 7,000 RPM, that’s where you meet it. That’s where it waits for you.”
We then meet Ken Miles (Christian Bale), an egotistical but extremely talented driver and mechanic, who is married to Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) and has a son, Peter (Noah Jupe).
What follows is a tale of the ‘bromance’ between Ken and Caroll. They become the leading charge of the battle brewing between automakers Ford and Ferrari in the 60s after financially unstable but racing-ly unbeatable Ferrari refused a takeover bid by Ford, which was seeking to expand its racing footprint.
The devious secret of this movie is that it’s not just the 1966 Le Mans race, the characters of Carroll and Ken, or what happened behind the gilded blue-collar doors of Ford. It is about dichotomies and the struggle between opposites to synthesise into something special and beyond the imagination of either party.
There is constant ‘bromantic’ banter between Carroll and Ken, with Matt portraying the careful but thrill-seeking nature of the American automotive designer with ease and Christian blending in a bit too smoothly into the role of an ego-maniacal and narcissistic English racing engineer.
There is a high-level war between Ford and Ferrari. Ford is financially stable and producing cars by the millions but struggles to have a legacy beyond the family sedan. Ferrari is iconic, sexy and keeps winning races due to the nature of its perfectionist founder Enzo but is on the brink of bankruptcy because of the same tendencies.
At the subtlest and deepest level, there is a struggle between the creative and the practical. We see this in the struggle within Ford between Ford’s infamous corporate executive machine and the start-up nature of Shelby Automotive. We see it in Ken Miles’ personal life and his trade-off between racing and raising a family and
While it’s romantic to simply take the side of the creative, the point the movie makes is that it’s the energy feeding off the struggle itself that fuels the engine. And this is something director James Mangold understands. Having directed both the legendary Logan and its preceding travesty, The Wolverine, he understands the balance of innovation and reality.
In fact, as Christian said in a RadioTimes interview: “Jim has this director of photography called Phedon Papamichael – the two of them have worked together for years. And they’re just like Shelby and Miles. They’ve got this absolute love and respect for each other; they’ve got a common dream that they’re going for and they bicker like crazy. It’s bloody hilarious to watch the two of them. And it was a great inspiration for us.”
But what makes it past the finish line because of this bickering battle is a multi-geared story, spellbinding cinematography, well-developed main characters and a powerful conclusion, easily earning its four stars.