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Review: ‘Ferrari’ Is Michael Mann’s Cinematic Auto Biography

Midway through Ferrari, the iconic Italian motor-racing impresario sits at a table with his adolescent son, born of his mistress. Enzo Ferrari sketches a design for a 12-cylinder engine, in long, chalky swoops, like a seamstress designing an elegant gown. He explains to his boy that the curved, sweeping angles create better airflow, which means more power, and more speed. “When a thing works better,” Ferrari, played by Adam Driver, tells the child, “usually it is more beautiful to the eye.”

Ferrari’s cars exemplified this principle. They were efficient. They were, at their peak, world-historically fast. They were also sleek, even sexy—covetable as much for their power as their aesthetics. More than Ford, or BMW, or even Bugatti, the word Ferrari conjures a rare unity of form and function. Enzo Ferrari was equal parts engineer and artist. In this capacity, he’s an ideal subject for Ferrari’s director, Michael Mann.

“To run a race car company,” says Mann, speaking via Zoom from his Los Angeles office, “is not that different from being an architect, or a film director. You have to use a lot of outside capital to manifest something that’s important to you—and perfect in your imagination.”

For more than 40 years, Mann has worked to close that gap between the idealized imagination, and the world beyond it. He has crafted exhaustively detailed, finely-tuned films, which are also exceptionally stylish. Early, in Thief (1981) and Manhunter (1986), he realized gritty, borderline nightmarish visions of the realms of criminals, cops, and killers, in gauzy, neon-dreamy hues that proved massively influential. As executive producer on the popular NBC crime drama Miami Vice, he engineered a pop, pastel, art deco revival that would leave its mark on everything from video games (Grand Theft Auto: Vice City owes Mann a debt, if not some residual checks) to men’s casual couture.

In the 1990s, Mann would swap out the lambent gloss for steelier palettes, lending cooler, chillier intensity to the crime epic Heat (1995), and the based-on-a-true-story whistleblower drama The Insider (1999). In the new millennium, he was an early adopter of digital technology, exploring its potential and pushing its possibilities in Collateral (2004), his big-screen Miami Vice feature (2006), the John Dillinger caper Public Enemies (2009), and the globe-trotting hacker thriller Blackhat (2015). With their jittery camerawork and conspicuously digital textures, these latter films alienated some viewers, and tested Mann’s ability to make bank at the box office. Ferrari is his first feature film in the near-decade since Blackhat.

During Mann’s long absence from the multiplexes, something strange happened. The director developed a cultlike following among younger cinephiles, who championed his post-2000s digital features. Critics held online symposiums on Miami Vice and Public Enemies. The indispensable New York City screening database Screen Slate sells a “MANN BOY” T-shirt in their online merch shop. Fans have taken it upon themselves to reedit Blackhat, in an approximation of the director’s original vision. His debut, Thief, about a freelance crook extorted by crime bosses, has gained pride of place in the personal canons of admirers who respond to its withering view of capitalist labor relations. This makes Michael Mann a unique figure in contemporary film culture: a cult director whose movies have cleared over a billion dollars at the box office.

Mann, who has a print of Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara in his office, says he is vaguely aware of this new sect of faithfuls. “One of my kids will say: ‘Dad, you don’t understand. Manhunter is very alive!’” he laughs. “It’s gratifying. This stuff is not fast food.”

For Ryan Swen, a 26-year-old Mann-iac who independently recut Blackhat and circulated it online, Mann’s style is unparalleled among his Hollywood contemporaries. “There’s something so different about his work,” Swen says. “His films have all this detail. And yet he’s willing to surrender to a romantic impulse.”

Like many of Mann’s modern-day boosters, Swen is especially fond of the more maligned digitally-shot features, citing both Miami Vice and Blackhat as masterpieces. The view may be inconsistent with the larger critical consensus, but it also suggests the ways in which the filmmaker has positioned himself at the cutting edge of the medium. “When I survey my own films,” Mann says, “each one has put me on a frontier, where I’m not quite comfortable, and it has some unique problems. To me, that’s the challenge, and the adventure.”

These adventures have sometimes put him at odds with audience expectations. Mann’s Miami Vice movie, for example, seems to actively repel any aesthetic evocation of the original series. Gone are the hot pinks and powder blues, replaced by gray-on-gray scenes of Biscayne Bay in the inky dead of night. A climatic, nighttime shoot-out verges on the abstract, and visually illegible. But it is no doubt incredibly novel: the sort of sequence that had been basically unrealized in cinema before, and that hasn’t been replicated since.

“I don’t think people were ready for that,” says Dion Beebe, the cinematographer who shot both Collateral and Miami Vice. “For audiences, there was a definite nostalgia for the Miami Vice TV series. We definitely leaned into a different aesthetic for that movie.” (It follows that many of the film’s most vocal defenders are younger critics, who do not reserve that same baked-in nostalgia for a TV series released well before their time.)

For Beebe, Mann’s early digital films rethought how audiences perceived movies themselves. The Los Angeles–shot Collateral, taking place largely at night, looks so completely different from the innumerable films shot, on film, in Los Angeles, across Hollywood’s hundred-year history. “The image of palm trees silhouetted against the night sky. To me? That is LA,” says Beebe, referencing how digital technology offered a truer-to-life vision of the city. “Before Collateral, we were imposing our light on LA. You are now interpreting the light of LA.”

Mann thinks about light obsessively. When he oversaw the director’s cut Blu-ray release of Heat a few years back, his interventions were strictly aesthetic. “We spent two weeks re-color-timing it,” he brags, referring to the process of adjusting the image’s contrast and saturation. “Otherwise, I never touched a frame.”

Light—its hue, glow, and all its particulars—proves essential to Ferrari. Moving away from the radiant ’80s buzz, the stony ’90s blues, and those post-Y2K midnight blacks, Mann shifts into the honey-colored, perpetual golden hour light of mid-century Modena, in northern Italy, where Ferrari lived, worked, and built his automobile empire.

“I wanted to immerse myself in Modenese culture, and authentically build an experience of what it is to be in Modena in 1957,” Mann, who lived in the region while planning and shooting the picture, says. “The challenge is for people who knew Enzo Ferrari, or who worked at that factory, to come in and see the film and have it feel authentic to them.”

This level of detail has always been key to Mann’s approach. His early films and TV projects were born of time immersed in police departments of his native Chicago. He observed the way cops operated, and explored the inner-workings of criminal subcultures. Mann is like Robert De Niro’s character in Heat, who, preparing for a heist, sits down casually at a lunch counter to page through a phonebook-thick tome about the metals his crew has to blast through. He is also like William Petersen’s Will Graham in Manhunter, imagining the interior lives and motivations of his quarry. Indeed, Mann is adamant that his penchant for being particular goes beyond lighting schemes or mise-en-scène, and into the interior lives of his characters.

“It’s about accurate psychology,” he says. “What are marital relationships like? What is expected in the bourgeois family, in Modena, in 1957? As complex as your life is right now, that’s how deeply Adam came to understand Enzo. What he did at 7 o’clock at night. What his handwriting looks like.”

Mann had been mentally workshopping these particulars for decades. He first began mulling an Enzo Ferarri biopic with the late director Sydney Pollack, he says, “a million years ago.” Various iterations saw Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman cast as the lead. A film about an automobile manufacturer drew little interest from financiers. That is, until the release of the Netflix docuseries Formula 1: Drive to Survive, which energized popular interest in motorsports. The critical and commercial success of James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari (2019), on which Mann was executive producer, served as another lucrative test case. Still, Mann boasts that his Ferrari picture is “totally independently financed,” with the film’s principals (including himself and stars Adam Driver and Penelope Cruz) taking significant slashes in pay to get the film made.

This tension between creativity and the demands of capital is Ferrari’s dramatic engine. The film is set in 1957, with Ferrari and his partner in marriage and business, Laura (Cruz), reeling in the wake of the death of their son. Aging and pot-bellied, Enzo must weigh buy-out offers from rival companies (including Ford), while preparing his cars and drivers for the annual Mille Miglia, an endurance race wending through 1,000 miles of Italy’s public roads. Enzo’s stubbornness (“I must have total control,” he flatly insists) pits him against competitors looking to assume command of his company, and his wife, who is entitled to half his financial assets.

In the background, Ferrari weighs the demands of his mistress (Shailene Woodley), who demands that Enzo claim their son, Pierro, as his heir. Ferrari is equal parts domestic melodrama and motorsports spectacle braiding Enzo’s increasingly complicated business and personal entanglements. Ferrari may seem like a departure for a filmmaker who, for better or worse, is most commonly associated with crime thrillers. Mann’s last big-budget biopic, the Will Smith–starring Ali, suffered a bit from the incredible gravity of its subject. Muhammad Ali lived in the public eye, and his outsize personality was part of the broader popular culture. Less so with Ferrari, whose brand exceeds the man himself.

Mann describes Ferrari’s cultural image as “stoic,” and a bit impenetrable: “A cube of granite with sunglasses on.” Yet the engineer is a familiar character type in his filmography. Like Petersen’s tortured serial killer stalker in Manhunter, De Niro’s cucumber-cool thief in Heat, or Christian Bale’s anguished FBI spook in Public Enemies, Driver’s Ferrari is a hard-nosed, single-minded obsessive whose professional passions eclipse his personal commitments—one of Mann’s “damaged men,” as The New York Times Magazine termed them.

“I don’t think that they’re damaged,” Mann says of his complicated heroes. “They’re men—and women!—who are trying to do something. I’m not really interested in people who aren’t trying to do something. And if you’re authentically trying to convey the life experience of the characters to an audience, it has to be the totality of it. Warts and all.”

Ferrari opens with a sequence that typifies many of Mann’s later works: a faux-aged, digital image of Driver as the young Enzo, fearlessly piloting an early model race car. Capturing Enzo racing—engaging in what the character terms “our deadly passion, our terrible joy”—was key to Mann’s understanding of him. It’s here that Mann, the persnickety technician, can’t help but surrender to those romantic impulses. “Why do we race? Why do we try to run faster? Why do we try to go to the moon? Why do we try to do anything innovative and different and better than it’s ever been done before?” he swoons. “You and what you’re doing all become one. It’s not you driving the car. You and the car become a unified whole, something harmonic.”

What distinguishes Enzo Ferrari from Mann’s other protagonists (damaged and otherwise) is that his pursuit of this unity seems relatively uncomplicated. On the racing track, even a horrendous calamity—lensed in one of the most jaw-dropping and memorable sequences in Mann’s filmography—cannot derail his pursuit of excellence. At home, his warring loyalties to his wife, his mistress, and the son he has with his mistress are ultimately resolved. Mann’s cops, criminals, and scheming bagmen are more typically consumed by their deadly passions. Not Ferrari. His story is afforded something rarer in a Michael Mann movie: a happy ending. Mann, now 80, resists the idea of Ferrari as some surrogate or stand-in. Still, it’s hard not to see the filmmaker’s career, and bits of his personality, reflected in the character, from his practical obsessions, to that brusque Modenese wit, to his status as a consummate technician-artiste.

Mann seems to have plenty of gas in the tank, working to prepare scripts and secure financing for a raft of upcoming projects, including a follow-up to Heat adapted from his best-selling follow-up novel, Heat 2. Ferrari is best and most optimistically regarded not as a final lap, or capstone to a varied, singular career. It’s the dawn of a new phase—evidence that the light is not dimming, merely shifting.

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