Review: Michael Mann Drives Ferrari, Offering Thrilling Race Scenes and Compelling Family Drama

When you go deep into the woods on a public figure, you better be damn sure that their life outside of whatever it was that made them famous is a story worth telling. If not, make a documentary and stick to your subject. In the case of former racer and eventual car designer and manufacturer Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver), his chaotic personal life certainly had its moments, and thus we get Ferrari, the latest work from director Michael Mann (his first time at the helm since 2015’s Blackhat, although he did produce 2019’s Ford v Ferrari). 

Set primarily in the summer of 1957, the film is not a biopic by any stretch. But that year was a time of transition and reflection for the Formula 1 mainstay. His company was on the verge of bankruptcy; his marriage to Laura (Penélope Cruz) had been on shaky ground ever since the death of their son a year earlier from an illness; and his mistress Lina Lardi (Shailene Woodley) was pressuring him to publicly acknowledge their son Piero (Giuseppe Festinese) and give him the Ferrari name. All the while, he’s struggling to prepare his driving team for the dangerous 1,000-mile race across Italy, the Mille Miglia. The only way his company can avoid going broke is if his team wins the race and the world starts buying more of his cars as a result. Often times, movies about businesses can be deadly dull, but when they’re tied to life-and-death racing, it’s a lot easier to stay locked in.

Written by Troy Kennedy Martin (based on the book Enzo Ferrari: The Man, The Cars, The Races, The Machine by Brock Yates), Ferrari’s greatest achievements are its racing sequences shot with impeccable, heart-racing skill by cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt (who also lensed David Fincher’s The Killer), and made to feel as terrifying and teeth-rattling as they likely were in real life. Combining the visuals with the knowledge that these cars were in no way death-proof cages built around the drivers only makes those scenes more (and absolutely) nerve-wracking. The film does not shy away from the dangers of Formula 1 racing, and there’s a crash scene near the end that will be talked about long after the film is forgotten.

Ferrari falters a bit when it starts to involve the members of the racing team and their various strategies for the Mille Miglia, but it is kind of a kick to see actors like Jack O’Connell and Patrick Dempsey pop up in these mostly thankless roles and actually make an impression just by being themselves. There’s a weird little through-line in the story about Piero trying to get Enzo to get the autograph of one of the drivers, so of course we know that guy is going to meet a horrible fate. The film perhaps has a few too many foreshadowed moments like that, and while it doesn’t ruin the movie, it can get tiresome.

The film is also a waiting game for wife Laura to discover her husband’s second family and be crushed by the fact that he has another son. Even before that moment, Laura is portrayed as unstable due to her grief and willing to sacrifice the company just to hurt her husband. So imagine her stability after this secret is not only revealed to her, but also when she discovers that pretty much every one else in her life knew about it and that Enzo has been siphoning off money to this other family for years. It’s not an overstatement to say that Cruz is the best part of this movie, if only because she sells the idea that Laura isn’t just cruel and vindictive; she’s a woman suffering deeply and lashing out as a result.

I am of a belief that Michael Mann is truly one of our living visual masters, and Ferrari is no exception. But he also has the ability to turn his actors into the embodiment of cool when required, and sometimes he sacrifices a more in-depth look into a character for the sake of style and polish. Driver is a gifted enough actor to pull off Ferrari’s cool while still giving us bits of his soul—certainly more than are in the screenplay—and that helps the movie immensely to become something more than the sum of its parts. And those badass racing scenes don’t hurt either.

The film opens in theaters on Monday, December 25.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.