So good that immediately on finishing a screening I pressed the re-watch button. But then this proved such compulsive viewing on original release that I saw it at the cinema four times in as many weeks. High-octane pedal-to-the-metal drama that easily takes the chequered flag from such illustrious predecessors as Grand Prix (1966), Le Mans (1971) and Rush (2103).
Astonishing racing footage is matched by a gripping narrative of ambition and revenge played out at the highest level by a quartet of terrific performances. Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), humiliated by competitors in the domestic market and thwarted by his plan to take over Ferrari, decides to steal the Italian giant’s crown at Le Mans, the 24-hour race considered then the pinnacle of motor racing achievement rather than Grand Prix.
He hires Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), the only American winner of Le Mans, who now runs a sports racing construction business and in turn he recruits maverick English driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Putting a spanner in the works at every possibly opportunity is oily Ford top executive Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) who constantly shifts the goalposts because he’s just mean that way or to win commercial advantage. Driven as much by personality conflict as anything else, the narrative pivots on Shelby shouldering the job of placating both big business and his maniac driver while outmanoeuvring all in sight to achieve his goals.
Jargon overload should be the kiss of death but that bold decision to involve the viewer in the minor and major technicalities of motor sport – proven and unproven techniques such as applying strips of paper to a car or battering the car boot with a hammer to increase its capacity and so comply with an arcane rule – pays off big time so that the picture can actually cover in greater depth the reality of running a racing team. Winning can be a matter of millimetres, tiny alterations amounting to massive differences during a race.
And it helps the narrative thrust that Le Mans is a single race rather Grand Prix or Nascar where over a season inevitably attention and excitement will sag. Other races are easily accommodated because they are vital to the end result, either in personal or technical terms. This is the ultimate battle against the odds, not just novice Americans taking on the big boys of Italy, but the ageing driver needing to prove himself again and again and the constructor sometimes giving in, sometimes not, to big business.
It’s pretty difficult to retain audience involvement with the competitors masked up but (as Top Gun: Maverick would later prove) little works better than having your half-hidden driver (or pilot) reveal his emotions by talking to the machine, providing a commentary on the action, though Miles’s favoured expression of “giddy-up” may not qualify as a technical term.
Interestingly enough, the principals are all indifferent, not to say occasionally shady, businessmen, Henry Ford II laboring in the shadow of his father, the repair shop run by Miles shut down by the taxman, Shelby selling the same car over and over to multiple buyers. But this is a richness of character rarely seen in action films, flaws usually restricted to sexual or alcoholic peccadilloes. Nor is there any sign of the old trope of wife/lover unable to watch drivers race, and marriages/relationships buckling under that pressure. Instead Miles’ wife Mollie (Catriona Balfe) rejoices in his skills while Henry Ford II clearly has a string of lovers.
The contrast between the romance and the reality of speed is no better expressed than when Ford is taken for a spin by Shelby or between the devil-may-care and the safe than when Shelby takes control of an aeroplane.
So many internal obstacles, Beebe’s manoeuvrings for a start, remain to be overcome never mind complications on the track that it is pretty much one twist after another with one awful ironic twist left for the climax of the race.
Christian Bale (Thor: Love and Thunder, 2022) picked up most of the acting plaudits, nominated for a Golden Globe, but I thought Matt Damon, Tracy Letts and Josh Lucas ran him close. Damon (The Last Duel, 2021) delivers a restrained performance that occasionally cuts loose to reveal the carefully camouflaged daredevil. Letts (Lady Bird, 2017), better known to me as a playwright, brings the right mixture of arrogance and power. One-time matinee idol Josh Lucas (A Beautiful Mind, 2001) eases back on the shit-eating grin and is one of the most self-righteous business bad guys you could encounter.
Sterling turns also from Jon Bernthal (Those Who Wish Me Dead, 2021) as Lee Iacocca (who later wrote a book about brilliant he was, although there’s little evidence of that here); Catriona Balfe (Belfast, 2021) and Noah Jupe (A Quiet Place, 2018) as her son. Special mentions for Ray Mackinnon (News of the World, 2020) as Shelby’s number two and Remo Girone (The Right to Happiness, 2021) as Enzo Ferrari.
Distinguished career as director James Mangold has enjoyed – from Walk the Line (2005) and 3.10 to Yuma (2007) to Logan (2007) – this has to be the peak, brilliantly bringing the human side into a movie that could easily have concentrated on the machines. He drew on an equally brilliant screenplay by Jez Butterworth (Spectre, 2015), John-Henry Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow, 2014) and Jason Keller (Escape Plan, 2013).