Matt Damon and Christian Bale have been household names in Hollywood for years, and biographical sports drama Le Mans ’66 by director James Mangold sees them come together on the big screen for the very first time. Marketed across the pond as Ford v Ferrari, the plot centres around the feud between the two mammoth manufacturers as they go head-to-head in a 24-hour Grand Prix race.
After an unsuccessful attempt to buy their Italian competitor’s racing program, Ford recruit automotive engineer Carroll Shelby (Damon) to build their latest vehicle. Shelby asks charismatic driver Ken Miles (Bale) to get behind the wheel of the newly designed car, and the friends must get past personal and corporate hurdles before they’re even at the starting line.
In the context of film, sports stories have developed into their own sub-genre which has its own trademarks and tropes; the inspirational speech, the training montage, the plucky underdog overcoming the odds. All of these clichés are prevalent within this narrative, and because of this, the structure and script feel very familiar. Aside from the petty interventions from a Ford marketing exec who throws a spanner in the works at every opportunity, there’s a lack of genuine conflict. With such small stakes, the racing scenes are entertaining without ever becoming edge-of-the-seat exhilarating.
The film begins and ends with monologues from Shelby but despite being the lead character whose arc bookends the picture, Damon is relatively subdued in his delivery. For the most part, he takes the back seat and allows Bale to do the heavy lifting with his larger-than-life role. As the cheeky chappy family man Ken Miles, Bale gives a showy but enjoyable performance that sparks life into the story. He’s funny, charming, and energetic, and the film is much stronger when he takes the wheel.
Le Mans ’66 takes us around a well-worn track and every bend is easily anticipated. It’s like a Rocky movie made for the road instead of the boxing ring, with Bale squaring up against business bigwigs, his racing rivals, and tiresome cinema conventions.