Friday 22 November 2019

Reverse engineering: "Le Mans '66"

The film released in North America as Ford v. Ferrari has been issued across Europe as Le Mans '66, a title presumably seen as more approachable, less likely to bypass the attention of the casual Odeon-goer. (Not for the first time, you'd love to know what was discussed in the focus groups.) In the battle between the two Fs, James Mangold's very watchable drama has picked a side - and it's most definitely not that of the Italians. Instead, the film describes the true-life special relationship between a Limey and a Yank that was to reassert the primacy of American race-car engineering, the right to burn rubber and gas. No film, whatever its title, has been more specifically targeted at the remnants of the rustbelt, and at former factory-line workers who've found themselves with unexpected leisure time after successive rounds of layoffs. Over two-and-a-half hours, the movie sets out how the Ford company - such a fixer-upper that the projector in the firm's boardroom jams mid-presentation - came to save face after seeing its takeover bid for Ferrari humiliatingly slapped down, and eventually upheld the legacy of its problematic founder. The title change can't quite conceal the fact this is another of the studios' non-franchise productions to have been greenlit by executives on the implicit understanding it's really all about business; the cars are in some fundamental way secondary to the turning round of a sinking ship.

Mangold's trick is to find buoying pockets of human interest within that story. He constructs a big, boxy film - a mid-range station wagon of a movie, plugging onwards in a steady second gear - finding room upfront for quite a fun odd couple, the mismatched mavericks who got the job done. There is Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon, source of much of that steadiness), a down-home Texan recruited as the last American winner of Le Mans to oversee Ford's early Sixties racing set-up. And there is Ken Miles (Christian Bale), the confrontational Brummie mechanic-turned-star driver, rarely seen without a smudge of engine oil across his face and a chip on his shoulder, who was in or out of the team depending on the Ford suits' tolerance for the cheek with which he proposed his inspired tweaks. Bale's enjoyably broad performance, scattering impatient bluddy-hells at each turn like a Sunday driver stuck behind a caravan on the Erdington ring road, can't help but recall this actor's recent performances for David O. Russell, but Le Mans '66 has none of Russell's subversive crackle. Mangold, the kind of dependable journeyman who might just have been claimed as an auteur of sorts in a time before grown men had to make Wolverine movies to keep themselves in circulation, merely gets this narrative up and running, then guns it all the way down the home straight to where it wants to go. The film is nothing if not a smooth ride.

A premium-grade Fox budget means it passes through a lot of handsome, stirring scenery en route: some post-Mad Men business in the Ford company offices, with the ever-wily Tracy Letts on imperious form as Henry Ford Jr., lots of magic-hour shooting around racetracks and test circuits, a workshop full of Ferraris, and a final, forty-minute recreation of the Le Mans 24-hour race (cameras strapped to speeding front bumpers, as per Claude Lelouch's C'était un Rendez-vous) which looked pretty damn convincing to this sometime racing fan, though you might want to refer to Top Gear magazine for a definitive verdict. It's also possible to detect some very savvy script engineering courtesy of the Butterworth brothers; everything about Le Mans '66 has been fine-tuned to play well on a Friday or Saturday night. This is the kind of film where a marital row is played out not over the breakfast table (too static), but at high speed in a car negotiating some perilously steep corners; where a dispute between Shelby and Miles over internal Ford policy escalates into a fistfight on the front lawn. It's just unsubtle enough to grab and hold a NASCAR crowd's attention, perpetually tossing hotdogs and T-shirts our way, but I sensed Mangold striving to do something a little more personal amid the finale about the tenuous place the maverick occupies within industry, and especially in a nicely modulated coda in which Damon gestures towards the emotional repression of a certain species of American male - a gulping-down of feelings that can only be overcome by putting pedal to the metal.

Granted, looking out at the world through a windscreen generates a selective view. Aside from that row - which feels heavily like the result of sighing rewrites - Mrs. Miles (Outlander's Catriona Balfe) has really nothing to do save to pick up after the couple's son and go out for groceries, hoping her speedfreak man will return to her after another hard day's piloting. (It's the astronaut's wife role.) That may be true to the period, but it's also typical of a film attempting nothing revolutionary; its success at a hitherto stagnant box-office - I saw it the Tuesday night after it opened, with a three-quarters full house - can be attributed to both a nostalgia for the manufacturing industry and for those starry, foursquare pictures such as Hollywood used to make. That's fine, but that nostalgia occasionally comes at us with a whiff of something fustier still: the movie does nothing very much to undercut Ford Jr's stated aim to best the "greasy wop" Ferrari, despite a scene in which, reduced to tears by Shelby's driving, he reveals a secret longing to have made his daddy proud. It's revealing that even a cornily rousing chequered flagwaver like this - a film that, for all its length and considered prestige, has nothing much more to say than any chant of "U.S.A." or "we're number one" - should repeatedly expose the willingness of men to serve as serfs or spare parts in a system, and those men's inability to regard women, non-drivers and indeed non-Americans as anything more than obstacles. It has enough juice in its tank to travel a long way round the awards circuit in the coming months, but Le Mans '66 has rolled off an old-school factory line, for better and worse.

Le Mans '66 is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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