For too long, Michael Mann’s Ferrari biopic is stuck in first gear
Michael Mann’s first film in eight years—a biopic of Enzo Ferrari—has its moments, but is frustratingly slow and plodding, writes Luke Buckmaster.
Don’t go into Michael Mann’s biopic of Enzo Ferrari assuming Adam Driver has the best surname imaginable to play a racing legend—because the film is based late in the subject’s career, his foot-to-pedal days well behind him. The drama unfolds entirely over three months in 1957, primarily revolving around Ferrari’s struggles with his marriage to Laura (Penelope Cruz) and efforts to expand his car-manufacturing empire. We meet the protagonist as he rises from bed in what we assume is his family abode, to the sound of gentle orchestral music and birds tweeting. It’s soon clear this is in fact the countryside home of his longtime lover Lina (Shailene Woodley) and their secret son.
The film begins slowly, barely in first gear let alone fanging it, setting in motion an experience that often feels monotone and painfully gradual—like being stuck in a car driven by a geriatric in a school zone. We learn Ferrari’s marriage has fallen apart, more or less, and that a racing record is about to be challenged. Driver’s performance in these early moments suggest a man who’s stoic, perhaps apathetically so; it’s difficult to tell if this man is calm under fire or just deflated. Grief also has something to do with it: the year before the story begins, he and Laura’s 24-year-old son Alfredo died of muscular dystrophy.
The first racing scene is intercut with visions of a church service, as if the film’s solemn aspects are holding on, trying to keep it funereal. Which this section sort of is, in the sense it culminates in a fatality. However Mann—not the most emotionally expressive director—treats that loss of life with chilling matter-of-factness. There’s no real sense of melancholia: this scene is stoic, like Driver (when it rains in this film, it feels like the weather is an expression of his character). Penelope Cruz delivers the standout performance as Ferrari’s complex and embittered partner: she has a haunted look in her eyes, inferring darkness without overdoing it.
Mann has long been attracted to stories of strong-willed male professionals, often involving clashes with other men in their path. For instance Al Pacino going toe-to-toe with Robert DeNiro’s thief in Heat; Tom Cruise’s assassin under-estimating Jamie Foxx’s cabbie in Collateral; and Will Smith’s Cassius Clay taking on Charles Shufford’s George Foreman in Ali. In Ferrari the foe, or foe equivalent, is more abstract: challenges in capital, investment, branding and production. All of which are made less interesting by the historical inevitability of the subject’s success. And yet this isn’t really a narrative about legend-making: it feels too insular, too tightly focused for that.
The film’s pièce de résistance is a reenactment of the horrifically tragic 1957 Mille Miglia. Given the results of this event, which don’t need to be relayed here, it’s fitting that Mann mostly strips his staging of the “go for glory” rah-rah that might’ve been embraced in other circumstances. The director generally keeps his cameras close to the ground, as if pulled to the cars by magnets. He’s obviously compelled by the elegance of these vehicles, their sleekness and aesthetic, their almost unreal shine and polish. Just as he’s compelled by their capacity for death and destruction. This is the film’s one really good scene, though the cutaways don’t entirely work and it doesn’t come with a great sense of stakes; you don’t feel emotionally invested.
Ditto for the film itself, which is rather cold and clinical, almost hollowed out. When Ferrari describes racing to his colleagues as “our deadly passion, our terrible joy,” the line is little more than air coming out of his mouth: it lacks heart and gravitas. The overarching tone is subdued, sure, but those words just evaporate. Ferrari eventually gets somewhere semi-interesting, but it’s stuck in first for way too long. I was shifting in my seat, hoping that Mann would step on the gas.