LE MANS ‘66: a thrilling, playful middle finger to corporate conservatism

Akin to most movies about sport, Le Mans ‘66 aka Ford vs Ferrari is not really about the field in question, motor racing. It is about men. James Mangold’s movie is almost obnoxiously masculine in an era where, and not without good reason, it is far from cache to be so. It is, quite deliberately, a throwback.

Mangold’s film, which tells the real-life story of the British driver who helped an American racing firm win the famed Le Mans race in 1966 for the Ford Motor Company, is a muscular slice of high octane drama. Following the sun-dappled haze of 1969 in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Mangold gives us a hot, bleached Los Angeles slick with oil and tarmac; a mid-60’s in the throes of a culture war. Ford, headed by Tracy Letts’ iron clad descendant Henry Ford II, are bastions of pure-blooded American conservatism, a Stateside corporate aristocracy who consider modern pop-culture icons such as James Bond “a degenerate”. Christian Bale’s British-born mechanic and driver, Ken Miles, is an unashamed team player. “He’s a beatnik” a Ford executive describes him as but, in truth, the family man Ken simply isn’t on brand.

Le Mans ’66 is, therefore, about masculine individuality. In some sense, David works for Goliath in this story, and the conflict isn’t really Ford vs Ferrari at all. That’s not the beating heart of Mangold’s film, and is only being sold as the title in the US because of the lack of modern associations with the name Le Mans. Framing the film as a conflict between the most famous American car company and legendary European racing firm in the world is an easy read, but the real battle is between individual American exceptionalism and a growing corporate hegemony in a post-war, pre-neoliberal space. Henry Ford represents a world people are still battling against in the Western hemisphere and, oddly enough, Mangold’s film doesn’t necessarily reflect a universe in which the little man can win.

If Le Mans’ 66 is a David v Goliath story, make no mistake… Goliath wins.

Please don’t take this to be a spoiler. That’s not, ultimately, the point of the story. There is a deeper rhythm to Le Mans ’66 which is presumably why Bale was attracted to the project, as was Matt Damon as Carroll Shelby, manager of the firm who enter the race for Ford.

It is interesting to see that Le Mans ’66 has done stronger Stateside box office business than predicted, particularly in the wake of reports that Charlie’s Angels—the latest Elizabeth Banks’ directed reboot of the classic 70’s TV series—has tanked hard. While it is disappointing to see a redoubtably feminist property targeted at a female audience fail (because it won’t help other such projects gain traction), it suggests the accepted wisdom that IP is king in Hollywood is not necessarily always the case. Based on a true story, Le Mans ’66 is nevertheless an original script, headlined by two household names and bankable male stars who, on their own, can still attract an audience. While Mangold’s direction is sturdy and revved up with torque, Bale and Damon are the glue that hold the vehicle together.

While the script for Le Mans ’66 is by no means awards-worthy, indeed at points it is damn well hackneyed (it doesn’t treat it’s one female character, Catriona Balfe, at all well), and structurally it follows a traditional underdog narrative pattern, it does front-load the two central, duelling character arcs for Ken and Carroll neatly alongside each other. Both are men passionate about their field. Both have something to prove. And both conform to Mangold’s interest in masculine deconstruction and crisis, as seen in his previous two pictures The Wolverine and Logan; indeed both men are, much like Hugh Jackman’s X-Men character, on some level ronin – warriors without masters. For Ken this is quite literal; he served in WW2 on the front line as a young man, and though he doesn’t carry the mental scars of conflict, the shadow of war looms over Mangold’s picture and its masculine psychology.

Indeed at times, Le Mans ’66 becomes dangerously close to being Trumpian. Henry Ford is a rather one-dimensional archetype of corporate villainy, a billionaire industrialist whose first priority is in the profit margin, but when his masculinity is challenged – his very position and family legacy, in the shadow of declining conservative fortunes, he is pushed into proving he is a winner. Ford becomes a microcosm of an American psychology buoyed by victory in World War 2 yet suffering deep existential anxiety as the world swiftly changes around them. Ken is both a symbol of the past *and* the future; one in which Ford need to appeal to, as Jon Bernthal’s progressive executive suggests, the children of WW2 servicemen not looking to buy their parents cars. They want sexy. They want fast. They want a car that says they’re a winner.

Yet thankfully, Mangold’s film is all about the underdog. Ford is recalcitrant and brittle, a man who literally needs the shit scared out of him to understand what kind of race he’s in. Josh Lucas’ slippery deputy executive, Leo, is obsequious and mercurial, interested only in the Ford brand and corporate homogeny. They are going to war on Ferrari, the dying Italian breed of gentleman racers, but our sympathies are with Ken and Carroll; men who just want “the perfect lap”. They aren’t looking for the bottom line or even to prove their own masculinity, they simply want to remain in the race. Ken lost his mojo. Carroll was cashiered from racing due to a heart condition. All they want is to prove their own individual exceptionalism in the face of corporate culture, and we are always on their side.

And while Le Mans ’66 has a bittersweet tang, a sense that ultimately money talks and corporate dominance is inevitable, it nonetheless quietly raises a middle finger at business and cultural conservatism and favours the individual, the radical, the person willing to push themselves and their passion to the maximum of endurance at any cost.

For that alone, not to mention the slick, muscular filmmaking that is by degrees thrilling and playful, it’s a race worth entering.

Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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