We need to talk about Le Mans ’66 – and sports movies

Le Mans ‘66 is the latest from director James Mangold, stars Christian Bale and Matt Damon and tells the real life story of Ken Miles, Carroll Shelby and the Ford GT40. The car was developed by the Ford motor company to go up against Ferrari’s seemingly unstoppable racing cars from the 1960’s, and this film recounts how it got to the starting line. Much more than a movie about wheels and engines, it’s a shining example of how to make a brilliant sports movie.

Le Mans ‘66 sees excellent performances from Bale and Damon as well as the rest of the supporting cast. And while it plots a fairly well-trodden path of the underdog story that you can mostly guess without any prior knowledge of the events, it does so with so much confidence and so many outstanding visuals that you find yourself not caring and just settling in for the ride.

And settle in you do. Because at two and a half hours, Le Mans ‘66 isn’t the fastest ride out there. But it’s not a film where you have to go in prepared for a cumbersome pace like some other recent two-plus hour flicks. Instead you can just be happy spending 152 minutes being thrilled by Mangold’s creation. 

The movie is so well-balanced between race sequences where you feel the intensity of the event and the moments where everything slows down and you feel the tenderness between many of the characters. The connection between Bale and Damon feels very real as they play two real-life colleagues and friends that clearly had a lot of love for each other. 

While it does so much very well, the race sequences in this movie are the real centre-piece of Le Mans ‘66. They’re made up with low camera angles that shake as the vehicles come thundering past and car-mounted interior shots that (probably) reflect the claustrophobic yet utterly thrilling sense of being inside a car going 200 miles an hour. The way they’ve been constructed by Mangold and editors Andrew Buckland and Michael McCusker means every single race in the movie – of which there are several – has a different feeling and you can feel the differing stakes of each outing. 

The reason Le Mans ‘66 is such a great sports movie as much as it is a great movie is because it’s the perfectly-formed cake made with quite a tricky recipe. Sports movies need to strike the right balance between drama and a lightness of touch. They also have to hook audiences in with enough tension that you care about a sport you might not have any prior interest in. Audiences need to care about the sportspeople at the heart of the film so any actors’ performance need to accurately weigh the passion that all sports people need to have with a sympathy that they sometimes don’t. 

And all of this needs to be packaged up with enough filmmaking prowess that justice is done to the real-life events in question but presents an engaging account of the real-life stories. Le Mans ‘66 has without a doubt achieved all of that. It’s a drama for those who like the dramatic, a cool story about sports cars if you’re a gear-head, an excellently crafted movie if you’re a cinephile and a really interesting piece of history if you don’t know much about the incredible 24-hour endurance race that is Le Mans.

A much better title than the US-released version Ford v Ferrari, Le Mans ‘66 might be the perfect sports movie. 

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