An unaware viewer of Ferrari might have to do a double take when they see the words “Directed by Michael Mann” flash across the screen following the film’s epilogue. The same man behind Heat, one of the all-time great heist movies, and Miami Vice, a case-study of how later critical reevaluation can completely alter a film’s perception, is now responsible for one of the coldest and most forgettable biopics of the year.
“Racing is our deadly passion. Our terrible joy,” Enzo Ferrari declares early in Mann’s film. The founder of the Ferrari automobile brand, Enzo has witnessed a lot of deaths in both vehicle tests and races in his time, and Ferrari finds him in 1957, which would be a pivotal year for him and his 10-year-old company. Set over the course of a month or so, Enzo faces bankruptcy and is desperately seeking an investor that will allow him to remain in control of Ferrari. His personal life is also in shambles, as he is trying to maintain an affair with Lina Lardi (Shailene Woodley), with whom he has a young son, and his wife and corporate partner, Laura (Penélope Cruz), who is justifiably bitter and resentful. The only hope seems to be the Mille Miglia race, which could get Ferrari not only a partnership but respect alongside heavy hitters such as Ford and Fiat.
Enzo Ferrari is played by Adam Driver, who is cultivating quite the Italian cinematic universe for himself just two years removed from Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci. With his tall, towering presence, slicked-back dyed-white hair, and unfazed scowl, Driver is low-key great in a role that plays to his strengths. He’s never had difficulty being being believable playing an externally icy character who wears his lack of empathy and arrogance on his sleeve.
Despite what appears to be a miscast Shailene Woodley, Penélope Cruz crackles on-screen as Enzo’s wife, who is a romantic partner second. She is a cut-throat businesswoman, retaliating against her cheating husband with possession of a check that, if cashed, could bankrupt the company just as Enzo is seeking a corporate partner. When Driver and Cruz are on-screen, there’s an intensity in their chemistry as well as a fire.
It doesn’t help Michael Mann nor screenwriter Troy Kennedy Martin — working off Brock Yates’ book Enzo Ferrari: The Man, the Cars, the Races, the Machine — that James Mangold’s Ford vs. Ferrari was able to humanize the competitive relationship between two of the most prominent automakers, let alone one. That basis of comparison inherently works against Ferrari, but nothing sinks it like its inability to stimulate. Martin seems downright disinterested in Ferrari’s role in racing competitions, but his script doesn’t humanize the man behind the company enough to warrant a great deal of human interest. Absent from the film is a look at what ultimately motivates Enzo, and the relationships in his life are underscored by a lot of bickering and several unmoving conversations.
The racing sequences themselves are successful in one regard and that’s showing the shoddiness of automobiles of the era. They look like tin-can death-traps, and move and sound like them too. Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt gets us very close to the vehicles during the racing sequences, ramping up the unsafe feeling as a result. When the fateful accident occurs in the third act, we’re stunned by the sheer quickness and brutality of it all because everything leading up to it had been so slow and plodding.
Ferrari finds something of a pulse in the third act, as it deals with the fallout from said accident and has Enzo grasping at straws in an attempt to conjure up a plan of action. In some ways, this is where the film should’ve began. It would’ve spared us a lot of unmoving human drama as a result.
NOTE: Ferrari is now playing exclusively in theaters.
Starring: Adam Driver, Penélope Cruz, Shailene Woodley, Sarah Gadon, Gabriel Leone, Jack O’Connell, and Patrick Dempsey. Directed by: Michael Mann.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!