It’s hard, at first, to fathom what exactly Christian Bale is doing in Le Mans ’66 (otherwise known as Ford Vs Ferrari in the US and other territories). His Birmingham accent occupies a near-horrifying space between uncanny Brummie and outlandish parody, and his physicality fits the voice. He juts out his chin in conversations and walks with an odd strut. It’s all very strange, even if it’s also great fun to watch. It becomes apparent, however, that Bale’s eccentricity as race car driver Ken Miles isn’t just the point of his character – it’s what the whole movie is about.
Miles begins the film as a mechanic who moonlights as a crack racing driver, with a pit stop team led by Matt Damon’s debonair Carroll Shelby. When Shelby is approached by Ford Motors to help with a new project, however, Miles suddenly becomes the man behind the wheel of a car meant to beat the Ferrari team at the 24 Hours in Le Mans, the most prestigious and difficult racecourse in the world.
The Ford Motors of the movie are a corporate monolith. Their building is only just big enough to fit in the frame of a wide shot, and its members are businessmen, either stuffy or slick, who don’t understand the restrictiveness of design-by-committee. They’re men of data, and more importantly, image control. By contrast, Ken Miles is a weirdo and an outsider. He has a mystical way of talking about a race car and sees it as an art or an intuition rather than something to be endlessly poked, prodded and number-crunched. Naturally, the Ford Motors executives don’t like him, and the film becomes a battle for creative control of the Le Mans car project.
For a movie so convinced of the incompatibility of the executives and the artist at the bottom of the food chain, James Mangold is a suspiciously artless director. His particular brand of direction up to this point has shunned that approach, anyway, being the hired hand that he often is. But he’s simply not a spectacular enough director to lift serviceable entertainment into great popcorn cinema.
It’s not even in the sequences of racing where he favours dependability over genuine flair; on more than one occasion, he’s gifted with a sequence of potentially sizzling material by writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller. Any sequence involving Tracy Letts’ Henry Ford II dressing down an employee, or Josh Lucas’ slimy Leo Beebe imposing the corporate line on Shelby and Miles (“That’s the Ford way” is how he ends one conversation – he speaks like an advert!), is loaded with glorious cheesiness that Mangold doesn’t know how to capitalise on.
Meanwhile, the exact opposite is happening in the script, which lays on the David-Goliath struggle of Ford and Beebe vs Shelby and Miles a little too thick, purely by virtue of the film’s bloated length. It’s an impossible thing to tone down without literally trimming the fat – the little man taking on the big company is the essence of the story. But when Beebe says, “Ken Miles is not a Ford man”, I don’t know if I can truly say Mangold – a studio journeyman at heart – really believes in the sentiment.
Le Mans ’66 is available to stream on most popular platforms now. More information about the movie can be found here.
Information about other great movies to stream in London can be found here.