Sheer Power
By Gavin Smith

Dir. Michael Mann, U.S./U.K./Italy/China, NEON

Back in the decade of “designer” everything, what would Miami Vice have been without Don Johnson’s Sonny Crockett behind the wheel of his white Ferrari 365 GTS/4 Spyder, upgraded in season three to a black Ferrari Testarossa? (Turns out the car was a fiberglass replica, but never mind.) Crockett’s ride gets yet another update for the 2004 movie version of Vice, with Colin Farrell now driving a gunmetal grey Ferrari F430 Spider. (Does the same apply to the bright red Ford Gran Torino, with its flanking white go-fast stripes, driven by David Soul in Michael Mann’s first outing as a television writer, Starsky & Hutch? Not so much.) So, Mann’s Ferrari fetish goes back at least 40 years. How did he get from there to here?

Here is Ferrari, a completely enthralling and remorselessly internal account, compressed into one decisive year, of the life, loves, losses, and high-stakes breakthrough to success of Italian car manufacturer and racing team manager Enzo Ferrari as he approaches 60. Ferrari is only Mann’s fifth departure from the crime genre with which he’s chiefly associated. The film’s trek to the screen started in the early 1990s with the legendary Scottish screenwriter, television series creator, and fellow crime specialist Troy Kennedy Martin, who adapted Brock Yates’s 1991 book Enzo Ferrari: The Man, the Cars, the Races for Sydney Pollack and then eventually Mann to direct. As the last man standing after Pollack’s death in 2008 and Martin’s in 2009, Mann (now 80) was clearly determined to see the project through—even if it meant reinventing himself as an independent filmmaker after decades as a Hollywood A-lister. It took him eight years to piece together the necessary financing, sourced not just from U.S. funders but also Italy, China, and Saudi Arabia—uneasy bedfellows perhaps.

Mann certainly doesn’t have to prove anything when it comes to supercharged, adrenalized action—it’s second nature at this point. A stunning scene early in the film in which a top Ferrari driver is sent out to break a lap record set a few hours earlier by rival racing team Maserati and is hurled through the air to his death as his car goes flying packs the kind of visceral punch Mann is always good for. This might seem to establish what Ferrari is going to deliver in pre-seatbelt 1957. To be sure, that scene does foreshadow another, more harrowing disaster, but it’s really a piece of viewer misdirection: this is only partly a film about a man who pays other men to risk their lives racing cars for the glory of the Ferrari brand, a man who demands that his drivers embrace “the deadly passion” and “terrible joy” of racing to win, as well as absolute commitment. You have to go back to Ferrari’s vintage pre-title footage of a 1920s race, incorporating shots of Adam Driver’s Ferrari grimacing behind the wheel. This prologue metaphorically sets up Mann’s central interest: the painful travails of a man up against a twofold make-or-break crisis. The film’s red Ferrari 335-Ss are, in a way, the least of it.

Ferrari can be read as the story of one-man’s struggle to shore up a brand, to save a business facing bankruptcy by raising outside investment and expanding and increasing output. The underlying tension between the necessity to manufacture cars for customers and Ferrari’s racing ambition priority is resolved, to his mind, when sales subsidize racing, and racing promotes sales. It is this that leads Ferrari to insist, “I must have total control,” and, yes, of course, this is Mann’s credo—his Kubrickian technical perfectionism leaves little if anything to chance. How tempting and how obvious it would be, however, to argue that the construction and racing of cars function as a metaphor for Mann’s meticulous and restlessly kinetic creativity. The scenes in which Ferrari vets the journalists assembled to interview him might even lend fuel to that fire. But the sequence’s true takeaway is to underline Ferrari’s business acumen and strategic thinking: he persuades a journalist to plant a false story that, in the nick of time, will induce the head of Fiat, Italy’s leading car manufacturer, to proffer investment in Ferrari’s struggling enterprise. Sure, as usual, Mann applies his famously intensive/obsessive research modus operandi—but not to the usual ends. Certainly, there are a handful of scenes in which Ferrari coaches his drivers, but we learn practically zip about how these cars work: there’s exactly one scene about engineering, and it’s between a father and son studying a schematic blueprint, and the punchline is “When a thing works better, naturally it looks more beautiful to the eye.”

“Beautiful to the eye” is an artistic value to which Mann subscribes, of course, but this time it’s not the beauty of wet-down city streets reflecting neon. Ferrari opens with two shots of Modena’s verdant landscape and returns to this simple pictorial grace in the climactic Mille Miglia 1000-mileopen road race, where landscape isn’t just scenery but a source of quiet wonder. And naturally, with characteristic visual ingenuity and flair, Mann finds innumerable fresh ways to film cars in motion—the insert shots of gear shifts and control pedals, the camera accelerating towards the cars as they approach, a nighttime panoramic bird’s eye shot of car lights below, what looks like a simultaneous track-and-zoom optical effect as the camera hurtles down a straight tree-lined road—and what kind of vehicle is the camera mounted on that can travel at these velocities to begin with?

Exciting and dynamic as the film is, what’s most impressive about Ferrari is the finesse and restraint he exercises over dramatizing the more intimate facts of Ferrari’s complicated life. This is the film’s true center of gravity. More than just his business, Ferrari is also trying to shore up and resolve his private life and his domestic arrangements. The recent death of his 24-year-old son Dino has left Ferrari and his wife Laura (Penélope Cruz) devastated. And yet for years Ferrari has been maintaining a domestic balancing act, dividing his time between Laura and his covert lover Lina (Shailene Woodley), mother to his 12-year-old illegitimate son Piero—now the only possible heir to the Ferrari business. Here, in a kind of pun, “transmission” comes into play. In car mechanics the term applies to the system by which a driver controls how much power is transferred to the vehicle itself. But, particularly in Europe, transmission also refers to the process by which an inheritance (a different form of power) is passed down to an heir, ensuring that continuity is maintained. Lina cares about “what is best for Piero”—but it’s Laura and her financial leverage as a 50 percent owner of the company that stand in the way of Ferrari’s acknowledgment and legitimation of his son as a Ferrari heir. More than winning a race, how this conundrum is solved, to guarantee the survival of a business, is the heart of the matter.

In the early stages of the film, Mann shows that husband and wife alike are cold-blooded when it comes to commerce—the death of a driver is treated, matter-of-factly, as the cost of doing business. And at the film’s crux, when Ferrari’s relationship with Lina and their son comes to light, the tempestuous drama that erupts is every bit as gripping as any racing scene—but it’s also a business matter. Mann is not one to let his actors down, and for all his exacting technique and his unshowy continuous shots, he knows that the one thing he can’t control, once the roles are cast, is the behavior in front of the camera. Cruz is incandescent and truly formidable and far surpasses anything she’s done to date. She’s also very funny—witness the affidavit signing scene at the bank. As for Driver, he achieves authentic gravitas, and, as encumbered with prosthetics as he is, truly gets inside his character, yielding a dry, genuinely complex and fully imagined performance.

Ferrari’s compartmentalization of his business dealings—his racing plans and his emotional ties to effectively two families—isn’t sustainable, and Mann lays it bare in a tour-de-force set piece that tops the climactic sequence of The Last of the Mohicans in emotional impact. Ferrari and Lina separately attend a performance of Verdi’s La Traviata, while Laura and Ferrari’s mother listen to a broadcast of the opera on the radio. Embodying this impossible emotional entanglement, Mann interweaves the four characters as the aria carries them away and their memories rise to the surface—of Ferrari’s brother happily going off to war, never to return; of Lina telling Ferrari she’s pregnant in the ruins of his bombed-out factory; of the blissful joy of Laura and Ferrari, early in their marriage, playing with their now-dead son; of Lina walking away holding Piero’s hand. The sheer emotional amplitude of this montage is without precedent in Mann’s oeuvre.