It’s twelve days since my last post. I’m not sure I’ve ever left it that long between pieces since I started the blog seven years ago. What can I say? It’s been an odd couple of weeks, and for the first time ever – no matter who you are or where you are – I know you can totally identify with that. My hope is that once this whole thing is over, it brings us together as a planet in the same way that it is currently keeping us apart.
Still, you certainly didn’t come hear to read more about COVID-19. Suffice to say that it’s been a week and a half since my last trip to the cinema and with my review of the feminist Miss World movie Misbehaviour still unfinished I am moving to films that everyone can actually see right now. (One quick note on Misbehaviour; it is entertaining but confused with its message. It is hard to criticise anything that values looks first and talent second when you are a Hollywood film starring Keira Knightly.)
So, onto Le Mans. My friends and I have had a little competition going to see who can predict the most Oscars each year since 1994. The same person always always wins (it’s not me) and in the lead up to this years contest I joked that I wasn’t ready because I hadn’t seen Ford vs Ferrari (known here in the UK as Le Mans ‘66 due to prohibitions on brand names being used in film titles). This was funny because I had seen all of the other films nominated and this is the one that didn’t matter, you see? This was the long shot. Well, the gag is on me because I was two points behind my unbeatable buddy this year and Ford vs Ferrari won two Oscars, for Best Sound Editing and Best Editing, that if I’d seen the film I would probably have put them down for.
Ford vs Ferrari, like Senna, Rush, Cars and all those other racing films, is all about the sound of those engines. I don’t know if this is a gender thing but hearing the low rumble of a finely tuned car and the quickening thrum that sings out as it accelerates down the straight is like nothing else. (It’s almost certainly a gender thing but I don’t want to reenforce stereotypes having already nixed my write up of a film about the women’s liberation movement for one about motor racing.) Seriously, if Barrie’s assertion that a fairy is born when a baby is heard laughing for the first time is true then I’m pretty sure a roaring Tyrannosaurus Rex pops into existence somewhere every time a V8 engine turns over straight off the assembly line. The sound is that emotive.
It isn’t just the sound though, as it’s other win on 10th February suggests, this movie also does a great job of editing together the pictures that go with the noises. The race scenes in this film about the Ford company’s efforts to steal the crown from the famous Italian team at the famous French automobile endurance contest are superb. It isn’t just the cars though, it is also about the driver too and what Ford vs Ferrari manages over something like Rush for example, is keeping you right there with the guy behind the wheel.
The guy in question is Christian Bales’ Ken Miles. As well as being the punchline to one of my favourite jokes (What do you call it when Batman doesn’t go to church?), Christian Bale is also legitimately one of the best male actors England has ever produced. (Although he was born in Wales in Haverfordwest, which is a town I regularly frequent and I can’t believe they don’t go on about it more.) It might be because he doesn’t do the interview circuit like Hiddleston, Branagh, Cumberbatch and Elba, was once caught on camera ranting at a film crew and was arrested, but not charged, for assault that people don’t consider Bale to be very likeable. Without commenting on his off screen persona though I have to say that he is brilliant at making complex characters likeable in films. This movie is no exception, showing you that Miles is difficult and temperamental but keeping you with him and his endearing suffer no fools attitude and delightful Sutton Coldfield demeanour all the way.
Alongside Bale is Matt Damon giving his usual dependable performance as car designer Carroll Shelby. In many respects Damon has more to do, as Shelby negotiates with their capitalist financiers. The tag line for the film is ‘They took the American Dream for a ride’ but they don’t push US commercialistic sensibilities as much as this suggests. The movie certainly celebrates wholesome Americana and waves flags other than those at the finishing line but the big companies are all shown to be selfish and immovable forces. Enzo Ferrari and his right hand man Franco Gozzi are definitely portrayed as the bad guys in a way that any Remainer will find uncomfortable but Henry Ford II and his sycophantic lackeys don’t come out of it well either. It is Damon’s character that has to steer his way through this world but it’s definitely the second fiddle part. Speaking of Henry Ford junior, Tracy Letts has one surprising moment playing this part that shows him to be a better actor than anything he did in Little Women, Lady Bird, The Post or any other of his patriarch roles. It’s really quite impressive.
In the end Ford vs Ferrari manages to tell the story of a groundbreaking race team in a nongroundbreaking way but there is lots here that looks effortless when it wouldn’t have been. Without James Mangold’s direction and those good performances and yes, the editing, it would not have been in the running for any Academy Awards and I’d have been totally correct to write it off. As it is, it is an enjoyable one hundred and fifty minutes when we need them most.
The Ripley Factor:
Since seeing Anne Hathaway in Dark Waters I have started to look at wife roles in a different way and like Hathaway, Caitriona Balfe provides excellent support in what is so often a marginal part. Just as with Matt Damon, Christian Bale needs her to play off and she shows inspirational fortitude and independence in what remains a slightly underwritten role.
Le Mans ‘66 is available for home viewing now.