THE STORY – A biopic of automotive mogul Enzo Ferrari, whose family redefined the idea of the high-powered Italian sports car and practically spawned the concept of Formula One racing.
THE CAST – Adam Driver, Penélope Cruz, Shailene Woodley, Sarah Gadon, Gabriel Leone, Jack O’Connell & Patrick Dempsey
THE TEAM – Michael Mann (Director) & Troy Kennedy Martin (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 130 Minutes
With any sport depicted on film, there is a balance one must present to obtain the right combination of elements for an audience. It is vital not to become too obsessed with specific details because it is easy to alienate anyone who doesn’t already come armed with such knowledge. At the same time, those passions have to be acknowledged by those characters, making their enthusiasm relatable. Many find it necessary to also attach more personal narratives within to give the story more flavor than can be found solely in the mechanical parts. “Ferrari” is a film that knows this formula and works best when it focuses on the right aspects to become interesting, even when it struggles to consistently create compelling conflict.
It’s the summer of 1957, and Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver) is facing multiple crises in his life. The financial state of his motor company is disarray, hemorrhaging money due to his obsession with pouring resources into the racing division. His wife Laura (Penélope Cruz) holds a significant interest in the company that is complicated by their volatile relationship, worsened by the death of their young son. At the same time, he must deal with another family he has made from his affair with Lina (Shailene Woodley), which has also produced a son. With all these events, Ferrari pushes his focus toward racing, hoping that a successful venture will increase demand for regular cars. It’s a big gamble that could easily fall apart due to the race’s circumstances, the drivers’ performance, and the stresses of his domestic life. Yet, he is a man determined to see his vision fulfilled until the very end.
It is certainly a thrill to see Michael Mann return with a cinematic project, as there’s been a giant hole in the cinematic landscape since his 2015 film “Blackhat.” There are many instances when one is reminded of the great filmmaker that Mann is, and it is especially felt in how he can craft engaging sequences built from whatever scenery is granted. The racing scenes have a kinetic energy to them that gives one a complete sense of immersion. The camera is often tightly connected to the car and driver, with a perspective that makes the whizzing concrete seem like it’s directly passing by. When a grandiose crash happens, that impact almost comes quite literally, and the carnage is captured with raw intensity. The same care is brought to the quieter moments that thrive on the drama between characters. In almost every instance, Mann shows a capable understanding of what propels the story forward and makes good indulgence on those necessary facets, though one misstep might be the score that is sometimes awkwardly folded into scenes when it is not merely serviceable.
At the same time, his efforts, and many other participants, are shackled by the screenplay. The late Troy Kennedy Martin is the credited screenwriter, whose passing in 2009 makes it relatively clear this project has been long in development. However, his writing tries to connect many strands of motivation together that are never equally distributed. While the racing can be invigorating to witness, the personal stakes are constantly at an arm’s length. Their importance to continuing the Ferrari legacy is established, but the personal investment isn’t felt much beyond that. The racers themselves are many in number, most played by recognizable faces, yet they barely register in their own narratives. The intimate lives Ferrari juggles are intensely fascinating with Laura but are completely lifeless with Lina and a theme of heritage that is nowhere near as engrossing as the film thinks it should be. The script creates an irregular rhythm that will entice one back into the fold before becoming disrupted by subpar and mundane storytelling.
What is most intriguing about Driver’s portrayal is that it is full of stoicism, a commander overseeing his pawns of battle and maneuvering the pieces to come out victorious. Yet, there is a fragility at the center that cannot be completely forsaken. He does a wonderful job of finding that nuance and creates Ferrari as a strong but conflicted man with a steadfast spirit. It’s a nice counter to Cruz, bringing a fiery energy to every scene. It’s intentionally a bigger performance, but she manages to be incredibly captivating. Between the shouting matches, she can also devastate with a teary stare that sits with utter contempt for the man at her side. She delivers the best performance in this ensemble that has a hard time making an impression. Woodley is unfortunately saddled with a bland character, but her presence does not create a more meaningful impact. The racers all feel like anonymous faces despite being played by the likes of Jack O’Connell and Patrick Dempsey. The story even establishes an important arc for Alfonso De Portago (Gabriel Leone) early on. Still, even he soon disappears into the fray, and his conclusion feels more perfunctory at the end of the day.
There are many things in “Ferrari” that can be appreciated for its level of craft. Michael Mann maintains a keen awareness of creating riveting presentations, from the fast-paced vehicle exhibitions to the quieter personal scenes that still carry just as much weight as a speeding hunk of metal. Unfortunately, these features all rest upon a very weak foundation. It’s not just that the screenplay is pedestrian in its basic construction (there’s literally a “the wrong kid died” line that is delivered earnestly). It’s that the narrative finds little complexity in all corners it chooses to explore. The personal connections are really only brought to the surface because of the actors, and even those are special occasions that can truly elevate beyond the material. It is appreciated that an attempt was made to broaden the scope and include elements that weren’t just depictions of fast cars with hyper-specific dialogue. However, it lacks the components to push this work into something more extraordinary.