The first act sets up the contest between Ferrari, who won the great endurance race for the third year in a row in 1962, and Ford. The American giant’s unsuccessful attempt to purchase Enzo Ferrari’s financially struggling operation makes for some of the film’s most entertaining scenes, notwithstanding the absence of star draws Matt Damon and Christian Bale from them.
Ferrari’s taunt to his rival across the Atlantic triggers Ford; he vows to beat Ferrari at La Sarthe, and green-lights a rival Le Mans programme headed by Carroll Shelby (Damon). The Ford versus Ferrari rivalry is established. And then immediately forgotten.
Act two seems to come from a different film entirely, in which Ford’s top brass repeatedly clash with Shelby’s skunkworks operation which it tasked with fettling the GT40 into a Le Mans-winner. Much of this revolves around their distaste for Shelby’s preferred race driver, development ace Ken Miles (Bale).
Perhaps my expectations were off. Maybe in those regions where this is being marketed as ‘Ford v Ferrari’, the word ‘Ford’ fills the canvas and ‘Ferrari’ is rendered in eight-point type.
Happily, Ferrari reappear as Ford’s adversary in time for the denouement at a painstakingly-recreated Circuit de la Sarthe. The film reaches a conclusion which, as those who know the period will expect, is poignantly-tinged.
Motor sport fans should find plenty to enjoy here providing they remember that, for us, picking holes in the plot and quibbling over historical accuracy are part of the fun. In this kind of project, film makers have to tread a line between keeping the nit-pickers satisfied and entertaining the mainstream crowd. The latter, of course, should make up the majority of the film’s box office take.
The film employs a range of devices to keep the non-motor racing literate audience clued in on what’s going on, with varying degrees of success. Miles’ son is repeatedly deployed for this purpose, and ends up looking like the offspring of Austin Powers’ Basil Exposition.
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But the lengths the producers have gone to render the cars and tracks of the time deserves appreciation. Especially Le Mans itself, which involved the construction of a vast set for the start/finish area complete with pits and press boxes, while rural roads in Georgia double as impressively convincing facsimiles of Arnage, Mulsanne and the rest.
The intensity of the action doesn’t quite measure up. Given the difficulty of obtaining a large enough field, the obvious thinness of the entry can be forgiven. What can’t be is the lapses into cliche – the infinite upshifts and the sudden realisation that the throttle pedal can go all the way to the floor.
The period details seldom disappoint. One brief scene in a Ford factory required 20 semi-complete Falcons to be arranged. For the scenes in Italy, the famed Ferrari factory gates and Enzo Ferrari’s office were created, again to a superb standard.
It’s just a pity that, having gone to such lengths, they didn’t use them more. While the boardroom intrigue at Ford gets the full Mad Men-with-cars treatment, the depiction of their Ferrari rivals is one-dimensional at best.
The opening scenes hints the rest of the film will show where Ferrari went wrong but all we get is what Ford did right in spite of themselves. It’s not as if there weren’t stories to tell: Ferrari’s ejection of John Surtees from its driver line-up would have been an ideal counterpoint to Ford’s wrangling over Miles.
Nor did they give themselves too little time to tell the story. It clocks in at over two-and-a-half hours. There’s no shortage of superfluous scenes from the flabby middle act which could have been left on the cutting room floor. These include a pair drawn straight from the box marked ‘Hollywood cliches’: Miles’ high-speed argument with his wife and a trailer-friendly Damon-Bale brawl.
So having gone to see Le Mans ’66, while knowing it was in fact Ford v Ferrari, what I ended up watching was Ford v Ford. That, plus the under-cooked racing action, made it somewhat of a disappointment, though one with plenty of visual treats plus the occasional laugh for motor racing fans.
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Le Mans ’66 / Ford v Ferrari
Publisher: Twentieth Century Fox
Released: November 15th (UK)
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