Hot Docs

Le Mans 55: The Unauthorized Investigation Review – A Racetrack Cold Case

Hot Docs 2024

6 mins read

Le Mans 55: The Unauthorized Investigation
(France, 90 min.)
Dir. Emmanuel Reyé
Programme: Special Presentations (World Premiere)


The year is 1955. Some of the greatest racing drivers of all time have gathered in the Sarthe region of France to engage in one of the most gruelling and celebrated feats of motorsport, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. A showcase of both human and mechanical endurance, the event was a celebration of both the manufacturers and the gladiatorial spirit of the hands behind the wheels. Immortal legends like Juan Manuel Fangio, Sterling Moss, as well as future F1 champions like Mike Hawthorn, all took to the racetrack, with the likes of Ferrari and Mercedes employing their dominant chariots, and British upstarts like Jaguar cutting into the dominance of their continental, post-war rivals.

It was during this race that tragedy struck, one of the most horrifying and deadly crashes to ever occur at an event such as this with debris flying into the crowd, killing 83 spectators and driver French driver Pierre Levegh. This is where Emmanuel Reyé’s extremely captivating, entirely personal quest comes in, trying to undercover the hidden truths that took place that day during Le Mans ’55.

Part sports drama, part crime thriller, part deep dive into family memories, Reyé’s uncles were among the hundreds killed or injured during that fateful race. Extant footage is presented, contextualizing the day’s events from the beginning of the race, through to the catastrophic accident, through to the decisions made to continue the competition even as body parts were being picked up from the grandstand.

The “Unauthorized Investigation” portion of the film’s title could simply be a flag for hyperbole or an excuse to avoid delving deep, but here, the very fact that the director/relative of victims was denied access to fundamental details about the event is very much integral to the tale. From detailed documentation locked up for many more years, through to the reticence of current motor racing juggernauts like Mercedes and Ferrari to comment on the events of three-quarters of a century ago, there’s a genuine sense that the deeper truths and contradictions that led up to the calamity continue to be blocked from public eye due to what at least appears to be fairly obvious attempts to deflect from the sins of the past.

The documentary asks far more questions than it answers, but it never succumbs to a mere fishing expedition for conspiratorial nuggets to mine. If anything, this is a textbook example of how archival research takes place, how such films are generally assembled in deliberate but journalistically sound ways. Witnesses to the event, and those that were part of the motor racing world of the time, provide their own invaluable remembrances, as do the other relatives of the filmmaker who have been affected by the lost they incurred.

The result is at times thrilling, at other times numbing with its look at this racing event. Le Mans 55 hints at lessons that were eventually learned from this track that would continue to take the lives of legends. Yet despite the modes in which the history of the sport is commemorated, it’s clear that key questions are left unanswered, from missing frames of witness photography that obfuscate potential secondary explosions, to the locking up of materials that, thanks to modern technology, would give an even more full portrait of what occurred, providing closure if nothing else to the family members who have long sought the truth.

In a different context, the film would be a kind of “gotcha” take, priming for potential lawsuits or seeking the blood of heartless organizers, automobile clubs, government stooges or multinational corporations. Yet Reyé’s patient yet firm air makes clear that what’s at stake here isn’t a need for retribution, but, above all, for finally coming clear about just what happened, how it happened, and what even to this day could be learned about what occurred to make things right for future generations engaged in the sport of motor racing.

For petrolheads, true-crime fans, and even the most neutral of audiences, there’s a great deal to admire about Le Mans 55. While some may be left unsatisfied with all that is left unanswered, the process of presenting the myriad questions makes for an ambitious, impressive work indeed.

Le Mans 55 premiered at Hot Docs 2024.

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He is the Managing Editor/Chief Critic at and a regular contributor for POV Magazine, and CBC Radio. His has written for Slashfilm, Esquire, The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Screen Anarchy, HighDefDigest, Birth.Movies.Death, IndieWire and more. He has appeared on CTV NewsChannel, CP24, and many other broadcasters. He has been a jury member at the Reykjavik International Film Festival, Calgary Underground Film Festival, RiverRun Film Festival, TIFF Canada's Top 10, Reel Asian and Fantasia's New Flesh Award. Jason has been a Tomatometer-approved critic for over 20 years.

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