In 1957, race-car driver turned race-car builder Enzo Ferrari (played here by Adam Driver) was at a crossroads in his career and marriage. No longer in love with his business partner/wife Laura (Penélope Cruz) and keeping an affair (and child) with a wartime sweetheart (Shailene Woodley) a secret, Ferrari’s car company was on the cusp of failing; his business model of selling machines to fund his racing was about to lead to either a merger with a bigger outfit… or ruin.
Hiding behind his sunglasses, he was under pressure to run his private affairs as smoothly as the engines under the hoods of his gleaming red machines. Looking for publicity, the media-savvy Ferrari decided to enter five of his hot rods in the cross-country Mille Miglia race, understanding the risk to both his livelihood and his drivers. But during the quest to beat Maserati and retain control of the wheel, the trailblazer would see his closely guarded personal life and business collide…
In the wake of Le Mans ’66 (aka Ford vs Ferrari), Michael Mann’s stately biopic feels unessential and uncharacteristic, but still classily rendered. Like James Mangold’s Christian Bale/Matt Damon starrer, Ferrari is priapic for fast cars and the period thrill/terror of sitting unprotected in little more than a bomb on wheels.
Petrolheads looking for low-to-the-tarmac angles, chrome-wheel spokes, ruby cars streaking across the Italian countryside, the roar of engines, and chat about fuel are well served. The danger of piloting such machines also receives due attention: Ferrari jokes about not setting his drivers on fire with petrol and talks of the “deadly passion and terrible joy” of the sport, whilst racers write final letters before getting on the starting line. Mann doesn’t shy away from showing the bloody aftermath of accidents either. In one sequence, a truly horrifying limb-ripping moment grimly illustrates the vainglorious nature of the game - and the progress in health and safety since. A shame, then, that some of the CGI in these moments feels unfinished.
Thankfully, the handling of Ferrari’s personal demons is more refined. And while Driver reheats his House of Gucci accent and attitude, it’s his interactions with the women in his life that add power to the picture. Cruz is luminescent throughout as a woman battling not only for her rightful place at the table, but for answers about the death of her beloved son.
Focused on faith (the Ferrari team attend mass while eyeing their stopwatches as speed trials are conducted nearby) and grief (Enzo is haunted by the deaths of his son and former colleagues), Ferrari leaves it to his wife and mistress to push forward. Cruz simmers with sorrow and hurt as she discovers betrayal, but then finds herself. Meanwhile, Woodley’s Lina refuses to be reduced to ‘the other woman’.
Like Ferrari’s motors, the production is sleek, expensive-looking and runs handsomely. But unlike the brand’s famous 0-60 mph starting capabilities, Mann’s film takes time to run the tyres in, only really reaching top gear in its second half. It works as a companion piece to Le Mans ‘66, but doesn’t manage to surpass it.
Ferrari is in US cinemas from 25 December and in UK cinemas from 26 December.