After a director suffers a box-office flop, they typically come back with something a bit more accessible to the masses in order to get back in the good graces of the general public and major studios. On paper, Ferrari seems to be just that, as it has the veneer of prestige biopic coupled with extensive racing sequences that seem tailor-made for the big screen. But then, we see that this film is coming to us from director Michael Mann, and all bets are off. Mann has never been the most predictable filmmaker, as it is hard to pin down his distinct style. He doesn't always go in the direction that you think he will, yet his films have a distinct throughline regarding masculinity and control. While Mann's previous film, 2015's Blackhat, was a critical and financial bomb, he isn't one to bow to other people's opinions, and is more than content to continue doing what he wants to do. In the case of Ferrari, this might put people off, especially if they are expecting a grand spectacle or a more conventional drama. But those willing to engage with Mann's more methodical style and the film's moody undertones will likely be pleased, and will find that this is one of Mann's best works in quite some time.
Legendary racer and auto magnate Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver) has fallen on hard times. His company is on the verge of bankruptcy, his marriage is falling apart, and he is still grieving the loss of his son. Amidst all this, he decides to go for broke, and enters his racing team in the Mille Miglia, a race taking place on several public roads in Italy. Enzo puts everything he's got into making sure his team succeeds, but is hindered by his financial and personal struggles. What unfolds is a study of masculinity that seeks to find the answer to why man craves greatness and power, and the consequences that come with it.
Michael Mann is no stranger to deconstructing masculinity in his work, as most of his films feature this concept to varying degrees. Ferrari features one of his more direct analyses on the topic, as most of the film's events come from Enzo Ferrari and his quest for greatness. Some might be going into this film expecting a straightforward biopic, and they will be sorely disappointed. The film does give insight into what went on in Ferrari's life in the lead-up to the 1957 Mille Miglia, but it does more than just dramatize real events. It plays into Mann's sensibilities so well, and allows him to go below the surface of Ferrari's life and the tragic events of the Mille Miglia. He asks the question of why we put everything on the line, including the welfare of others, in order to achieve glory. The answer is pretty easily discovered, in that power, wealth, and public adoration generally come with it, but the hubris that one man might have can also be his undoing, and the film states this quite succinctly.
The film focuses solely on Ferrari's life from the months before the Mille Miglia until just after the race ends, which helps the film from feeling bloated or over-indulgent. It gives us what we need to know about Enzo Ferrari at the beginning, and goes from there. At a time where womb-to-tomb biopics are the standard, it is nice to see a film that narrows the focus a little while still being informative in regards to its subject. Mann is not always the most efficient storyteller, as he has been known to meander or to breeze past certain plot points, but he mostly stays focused here. There are some things that feel a bit brushed to the side in the grand scheme of things, but at the very least, the most important stuff is given the proper attention and care it needs. It helps that there are clear parameters that Mann is working in with the film, which allows him to do his thing while also setting boundaries that keep him from straying too far from the film's main focus.
While much of the film is focused on Enzo Ferrari's failing marriage and the racing team preparing for the Mille Miglia, the film's most impressive stretch is in the back half, which features some stunning racing sequences. These scenes are so exhilarating, and are easily the centerpiece of the whole film. Erik Messerschmidt's cinematography captures the thrills and the danger that come with auto racing, which makes these sequences all the more intense. On top of the look of these scenes, the sound design and mixing is top notch, leading to an almost immersive experience. The Mille Miglia scenes are some of the most technically impressive sequences I've seen all year, and they end up carrying so much weight to make the film's final act all the more impactful.
It is hard not to think of House of Gucci while watching Adam Driver in this film, mainly because he is once again playing a famous Italian businessman, but he is definitely more in his wheelhouse here. As Enzo Ferrari, Driver is able to do some subtler work, and he nails the internalization of Ferrari's emotions so well. It is such a controlled performance that never sees him going too big, as he plays a lot of the film with a more stoic confidence. But there are moments where we see the cracks in his facade, which may not yield the big, explosive acting choices one might expect from Driver, but still land rather well. It's a quietly powerful performance, and anchors the film's themes of masculinity and chasing glory so effectively.
The women of Ferrari's life play a sizable role in the film, as Enzo Ferrari's marriage and his affairs are touched on throughout. I wouldn't say that the roles themselves are written particularly well, but they are acted rather well. Shailene Woodley does a good job as Ferrari's mistress, Lina Lardi, although her accent is rough to say the least. If the dialect work was stronger, the performance would have stood out more to me, but it does take away from the otherwise solid work Woodley is doing here. On the other hand, Penelope Cruz is phenomenal, and gives a knockout performance as Enzo's wife, Laura Ferrari. She really goes for it in this film, and it pays off big time. Cruz is the perfect foil for Driver's more reserved performance, as she is so outspoken and much more prone to showing her true emotions. She is so magnetic, and is especially great in the scenes where her and Driver are arguing. She is arguably the MVP of the whole film, and it is definitely one of her best performances of the past several years.
Ferrari might put off some looking for a more conventional biopic, but it is hard to deny the technical craft on display here. Those who are accustomed to Michael Mann's distinct style might connect with this film better than most, but I would defy anyone not to get sucked into the film's final act at the very least. For me, I was invested all throughout, but I can admit that the last section is the strongest of the film. Ferrari manages to break from the standard biopic formula a bit, which makes it all the more intriguing, and Mann is able to take the story and get to the interesting themes underneath it to great success. It isn't perfect by any stretch, but it is hard not to be fascinated by how it goes about telling the story of the 1957 Mille Miglia and the consequences of Ferrari's quest for greatness.