Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver) is “hearing voices in his sleep again,” he explains to his son (or rather his son’s emblazoned marble gravestone) at the beginning of Michael Mann’s Ferrari. The voices are unattached, floating in and out of Enzo’s life with disconcerting clarity. The specifics of this haunting are withheld, but perhaps they are confronting him with the same name that the audience is immediately bombarded with in those first 30 minutes: Jean Behra. Behra is one of the many polished, jauntily confident racers who circle Ferrari in hopes of piggybacking off of his success—tossing their lot and lives in with the Ferrari empire—lending Ferrari appropriate gravity as its namesake manages the ambitions and lives of his young racers.
Mann has dedicated his career to crafting stories about the soft, enduring relationships which give men relief from the rigors of masculinity. Like the Mann protagonists who precede him (Hawkeye in The Last of Mohicans or even Neil McCauley in Heat), Enzo’s life is made both liveable and complicated through long-standing working relationships with men. But the fulcrum of his life rests on his tempestuous wife, Laura (Penélope Cruz).
As Laura, Cruz embodies a fiery erraticism–like a permanently sharpened ax, ground to a razor’s edge, emitting sparks that instantly evaporate. Cruz and Driver are an odd pairing; one explosive and slick, the other elusive and cumbersome, but they relish the challenge of making this relationship feel real, spitting arguments at one another with vitriol steeped in regret. The Ferraris upend any tired notion of “behind every great man there’s a great woman.” Instead, Mann negotiates a harsher interpretation of such infamous marriages, where a great man’s life is built atop the exhausted remains of his heartbroken wife.
Together they wrestle the Ferrari company into a shape that will sustain financial growth, building cars designed to be lighter, go faster, reach farther. Mann successfully translates such ambition, making the jagged functionality of cars feel near and undeniably cool, yet Ferrari fails to invest enough time in its supporting cast, wielding them as puppets for Enzo’s overwhelming ambition. In doing so, Mann loses the stakes of the story, pressure seeping from every potentially dangerous race. Yet his ability to manipulate the camera’s focus—playing with space and perspective to catch events moments before the characters do, building a web of actions that overlap and correspond in thrillingly cinematic ways—remains unrivaled.
As with all of Mann’s big, loud and long films, the violence and noise conceal a simple, if melodramatic, love story. Ferrari is that, although it never quite settles on the subjects of the love story. Is it between Enzo and Laura? Enzo and Lina (a particularly lifeless Shailene Woodley)? Enzo and cars? Enzo and his sons? Such an inconclusive perspective suggests that writer Troy Kennedy Martin struggled to wrestle the unwieldy source text (Brock Yates’ biography Enzo Ferrari: The Man, The Cars, The Races, The Machines) into a complete person. Instead, the most interesting, most important relationships in Enzo’s life—particularly those he shared with his dead son and Laura in years past—are only briefly caught, consigned to off-screen history.
Biopics must capture a person in a few hours, wrestling something huge and expansive into a container with defined curves and edges. It is an impossible task that Mann tries to manage before growing distracted by the glitzier, more dramatic elements of Ferrari’s life. The filmmaker dedicates the runtime time to a few, brief and bloody moments that cemented Ferrari’s success, making something that feels appropriately (for Mann) action-packed, if thematically underwhelming. Ferrari is a loud and thrilling race that leaves the figure of Enzo stranded on the side of the road, unknown and lost.
Director: Michael Mann
Writer: Troy Kennedy Martin
Cast: Adam Driver, Penélope Cruz, Shailene Woodley, Sarah Gadon, Patrick Dempsey
Release Date: December 25, 2023
London-based film writer Anna McKibbin loves digging into classic film stars and movie musicals. Find her on Twitter to see what she is currently obsessed with.