“Well that didn't happen,” I whispered to my pal less than a minute in. He looked at me, rolled his eyes and I promised there and then to keep my trap shut for the next two and a half hours. After all, Le Mans ’66, the new big-budget racing movie depicting the intense mid-’60s rivarly between Ford and Ferrari, is no documentary. It’s pure Hollywood. Racing aficionados, leave what you know in the cinema foyer.
But to dwell on the exagerrations, inaccuracies and oversights is a waste of energy. What would you expect? The history of the GT40 is complex and nuanced, with many leading players. Instead, we get a simpler narrative based only roughly on truth, which twists it all into an old-fashioned buddy story based around its two star leads: Matt Damon as retired racer and emerging tuning legend Carroll Shelby, and Christian Bale as his spiky English friend, driver and mechanic Ken Miles.
Damon and Bale ham it up and have a ball, with Bale in particular relishing the part of belligerent Miles, who conversely is also a loving husband and father (even if his Brummie accent creaks). Funny to see Ken Miles elevated to a movie hero: he was never close to A-lister status in period, even by those who rated him. Still, his role in the birth of the GT40 is often overlooked, so this film at least addresses that injustice.
The trigger for Ford’s quest to conquer Le Mans is Enzo Ferrari stringing along Dearborn executives over the infamous failed takeover in 1963. Again, pedants walk away now. The portrayal here has a deft comic touch, while the reaction of Henry Ford II, played with gusto by Tracy Letts, channels pure Trump.
And the racing scenes? The recreated GT40s and 330 P3s look terrific – when they are not moving. At speed, director James Mangold reverts to all the cliches that infuriate car people at the flicks. There’s always another gear and two inches of throttle to find. It’s better than cringe-inducing Rush and not a patch on John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix and Steve McQueen’s Le Mans in this regard. But the CGI-assisted recreations of Daytona and Le Mans are impressive.
But the best things about this movie? First, it’s a lot of fun – don’t take it too seriously. Second, it actually got made. At a time when the car is widely vilified for the wrongs of our precious world, here is a big Hollywood movie that glorifies racing culture, the joy of an ear-splitting 7.0-litre and the rebel spirit of the characters that fuelled it all. Go see it on the biggest cinema screen you can find.