American car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is hired by Ford to create the car that will defeat Ferrari at the Le Mans 24 Hour Race - the Ford GT. The only person who can drive that car, however, is Ken Miles (Christian Bale) - a hot-headed former tank commander-turned-race car driver and mechanic. Together, they form a partnership that sees them take on the giants of racing, and the Ford Motor Company itself.
Going into 'Le Mans '66', the initial thinking would be that this is a movie that's somewhat stale in its subject matter and doesn't necessarily lend itself to a modern, mainstream cinema audience. After all, it's not based on an existing property - unless you count the story of Ford and Ferrari's racing rivalry as an "existing property" - and it doesn't link into some kind of extended universe or have the potential for sequels. Yet, for all of the unlikeliness of it, 'Le Mans '66' is one of the most exciting and entertaining movies of the year.
The way in which the racing sequences are laid out is clean and crisp, with director James Mangold really placing an emphasis on the engine noises and the momentum of it all. There's a real sense of speed - but not in a chaotic way - and the benefit of seeing it in a cinema can't be overstated. Good sound design isn't about making everything loud or overbearing, it's about giving it an almost tactile quality. When the engines rev and the tyres screech across the tarmac, it doesn't just sound like it's been pulled from a library.
Likewise, the performances by Bale and Damon feel just as natural and unfiltered. Bale taps into the ornery with an uncommon ease, while Damon bounces off his grouchy nature with an ease and charm you'd expect. Their dynamic is one that feels like it's been years in the making, but it's only just now that a camera has caught the two of them together. The supporting cast is stacked with strong performances too, including Tracey Letts as Henry Ford II, Caitriona Balfe as Miles' long-suffering wife, and Jon Bernthal as marketing pioneer Lee Iococca.
Really though, the star of the show is undoubtedly how James Mangold handles the action and the suspense in the racing sequences. It's all so finely tuned, so breezily enjoyable that you really do get a sense of the excitement and the spectacle of it all. Racing movies very often tend to exert more effort into realism than they do into making it exciting, believing that it's exciting enough on its own. 'Le Mans '66', however, seems to embrace the fact that it's a glossy take on a real story and presents itself as an entertaining romp, making it all the better for it.
It might be a little straight-laced in places, and is definitely guilty of some cliches, but who cares when it's this fun?