Le Mans ’66 at LFF: a lesson in artistic vision and integrity
James Mangold’s Le Mans ’66 is not a ‘car film’, but the story of two men who loved driving and building them. During his introduction to the film, Mangold stated that he never understood racing – he only saw cars driving on a loop. He approached the film by not bothering to not go into detail about what the racing world was like or how important was for Ford to win against Ferrari. The film shifts its focus to the men who protected their artistic vision and integrity. This is the film’s real strength, Mangold manages to relate the story to what it means for creative individuals to work for a large company; he manages to accomplish this whilst giving the audience one hell of a ride.
The film narrates the lives of Ken Miles (Christian Bale) and Carrol Shelby (Matt Damon). Both men are passionate about driving, but have not raced in a long time; Shelby is the owner of his own car manufacturing company whilst Miles has a small repair shop. At the same time, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) is having trouble with his company – the marketing team suggests his cars are not sexy enough, so they decide to make a deal with Ferrari to produce cars together. After the negotiations fail, Ford II is determined to win Le Man ’66 against Ferrari, and hires Shelby to build the best race car possible.
This leads Shelby to seek the expertise of Miles, whose mechanical engineering and driving skills are unparalleled. The real conflict begins with Miles being hesitant to join Ford: he believes he won’t be able to develop the car he wants because the executives, PR and Marketing departments will be more worried about portraying an image than actually delivering the best car possible to win the race. Throughout the film, we get to see Shelby and Miles maneuver through the Ford bureaucracy as they attempt to build their car. They work as a producer and director, Shelby deals with Ford and makes sure Miles gets the car right. As we approach the famous race, the stakes rise every time we observe Miles interact with his family. He has a lot to lose. When the film actually arrives at Le Mans, Mangold delivers thrilling and exciting sequences that keep the audience on the edge of their seat. When the wonderful sound design kicks in, you won’t want to blink.
Despite these incredible race sequences, the most interesting aspect of the film is seeing how hard Shelby and Miles fight for creative control. Mangold is known for making studio films that have their own voice. During the film’s introduction, he stated how large action studio films should follow the example of great filmmakers such as David Lean. Action can only be brutal and believable when the characters feel real to the audience and we are emotionally connected to them – those things you can’t storyboard. Nowadays, we see a lot of blockbusters where the main focus are the jokes, action scenes and special effects; on the other hand, Mangold understands that characters are key and are what fuel the spectacular setpieces. It is quite refreshing to see a man make an outcry about how important is to preserve blockbusters, because like any other story they have the potential to be good, and right now Hollywood is not really making the type of films he loves.
Le Mans ’66 might not grab its audience as Tarantino did with his latest film or be as visually stunning as James’ Gray Ad Astra, but the film gives a lesson on how important is to fight for your creative vision despite working for one of the largest companies in the world. If a company aspires to have the best product, they must allow the artists of that product to be themselves. Miles’ car did not win the race because it looked beautiful or stopped to take pictures, it won because it was made with care and passion.