I’m not interested in cars, or racing, or a combination of both. I don’t even have a driving license. Imagine that. This is the story of how I came to watch a film about cars, and racing, and fell in love with both.
I love going to the cinema because I love trailers. I also love commercials. I always make sure to arrive early to play my favourite game. It’s called Guess What This Commercial is For. Cinema commercials are usually less about the product they advertise and its supposed benefits and more about evoking emotion. Case in point: this one. I couldn’t care less about the car it’s promoting (for that’s what it does) but I do love the vague sense of the uncanny provoked (intentionally or not) by its ample use of CGI and Captain Beefheart music.
The point I’m getting at is that said commercial was followed by a trailer for a film about, you guessed it, cars. Le Mans ’66 (called Ford vs. Ferrari in some countries, presumably for legal reasons) focuses on two men, played by Matt Damon and Christian Bale, who want to build the perfect race car to beat Ferrari in the world-famous Le Mans race. It’s based on a true story and petrol heads are queuing up as we speak to point out its flaws. As mentioned before, though, I know next to nothing about cars and racing, so none of this bothered me very much.
In fact, the film might as well have focussed on a bunch of stamp collectors. It has Christian Bale in it, which in itself is a good enough reason to go and see it, as I can’t recall a truly bad film he’s done. But what really made me decide to go and see it was the weather. It’s late Autumn as I write this, we’re getting about five seconds of sunlight per week, if we’re lucky, and I felt badly in need of some brightness to stave off the gloom. Le Mans ’66 offers just that. It’s set in the American desert and the South of France, it’s 1960s colour scheme is cheerful and upbeat, and it boosts a fist-pumping soundtrack that’s bound to put a spring in your step.
The feminist in me did grumble about the film’s overwhelming white heterosexual masculinity. There’s a magnificent scene in which Catriona Balfe gets to speak her mind, but it’s pretty much the only one, and throughout the film she’s very much Christian Bale’s wife rather than an independent character. Then again, racing is a man’s world, and back in ’66 it was even more so than it is today. Like it or not, the film is historically accurate in this respect. Although I recommend you check out the true story of Liane Engelman, one of the first female racing drivers, to counterbalance its testosterone a little bit.
I actually think that the film does a pretty good job with its depiction of masculinity and its perils. It may not be intended as a gender-critical text but that doesn’t mean you can’t read it that way. Every major moment in the film, from the characters’ decision to build the car to their obsessive fine-tuning of it, is motivated by their desire to prove their masculinity. The scenes in which Matt Damon confronts Ford vice presidents, and indeed the company’s owner, are classic Western-style showdowns. It’s all about being the toughest, fastest, most daring bloke of them all. The implication being that Christian Bale (as driver Ken Miles) is the film’s top dog, as his ability to race a car like nobody’s business overrules the wealth and social status of the Ford execs he’s up against. Whether it always works that way in the real world, and whether this kind of competitiveness is a good thing, is a different matter for a different film.
A lot of mainstream contemporary films feel boring and soulless to me. There’s too much CGI, cardboard cut out characters, cheesy storylines and all the rest of it. They’re not even so bad that they’re good. They’re just bad (Midway, I’m looking at you). While not perfect, Le Mans ’66 is great entertainment. The film goes on for more than two hours and I never got bored. It’s funny, the acting is great, the pacing fast, the mood upbeat. In other words, it might just be the kind of film you need to see at this time of year, right before the Christmas madness kicks in.