Ferrari: Grace & Consistency

photo: courtesy of NYFF/NEON

Has Michael Mann ever made a movie about an evil man? 

I thought back on his oft-gun-toting leading men: James Caan and Robert De Niro play thieves, sure, but gentlemen too. Daniel Day-Lewis’s Hawkeye and Russell Crowe’s Jeff Wigand are unquestionably, even frustratingly heroic.Tom Cruise’s Vincent in Collateral—not so much an “evil man” as much as he is the devil incarnate, malice made literal. The rest of Mann’s protagonists are largely stubborn, do-gooding even if they aren’t always too fun to be around. 

I spent much of the length of Ferrari wondering if Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver), former race car driver and founder of Ferrari, was an evil man. I thought about this not because I think Michael Mann wanted me to think about it, but because it felt inextricable from the plot of the film as written by Troy Kennedy Martin, and revised by the director himself. Ferrari by way of Driver and Mann finds himself between a number of choices: to sell the shares of his company, to leave one woman for another, to push the boundary of how fast a car can move, no matter the (human) cost. Ferrari warns his drivers that two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time. One person must fear death a little more. Sooner or later, Ferrari—like a driver—will have to brake, or push ahead. As Veronica Fitzpatrick wrote in her review of the film back in October: “With Ferrari, Mann confirms he’s the author of what men cannot walk away from, of contaminating, pressurized worlds where obsession and principle conflate.”

Ferrari tells the story of not only the titular man but also the titular car—a go-fast Italian sports vehicle used to race through the European countryside and kill hot young stars in brutal roadside accidents. As Ferrari readies his team for the 1957 Mille Miglia, he considers the possibility of leaving his wife Laura (Penélope Cruz) for his mistress Lina (Shailene Woodley). There are cars to build, drivers to train. Ferrari is constantly switching gears, modes. One second he is a father to his bastard son, the next he is a drill sergeant. It is hard to get too attached to anyone around him; you never know what might await them around the corner.

For a long time, I have quietly compiled a way of categorizing Michael Mann films on a spectrum that ranges from “vibes” to “operatic.” Blackhat and Miami Vice, for instance, boast semi-incomprehensible plots but enviable mise-en-scene, dense with jargon and color and music. The Insider and Heat, on the other hand, lean towards melodrama. These are capital-P Plotted films, with twists and turns and big monologues. Right in the center of the spectrum—the perfect middle—is Manhunter. I hope this makes as much sense to you as it does to me.

Ferrari is undeniably operatic, not only because it is Italian and there’s a scene literally set at the opera, but because it is dramatic and wrought, bursting with highly saturated reds (the cars, yes, but the lipstick, the tomato sauce, the blood). Is this “late Mann”? Is it “new Mann”? No—this is “old Mann,” this is the dawn of man, as burdened by money and ambition and fame. It was easy to conjure other like-minded films about inventors whose work goes on to kill them (The Social Network, Blackberry, what have you). 

Mostly, however, I thought of the later work of James Gray. Gray, like Mann, makes movies about America and Americans, even when they are not American themselves, and Gray, like Mann, cannot avoid a European sense of fate. I thought of Gray’s doomed protagonists at the heart of The Lost City of Z and Ad Astra who barrel through South America and the Solar System, respectively, like the Grim Reaper. These men kill, either by their own hand or through their vision. Are they murderers? Are they evil? Enzo Ferrari hops in his green car, making offers to pay off a widow or plant a story about his company with a half-worthwhile reporter; he visits his deceased son Dino at the cemetery. He does not rest. Laura travels separately: two objects cannot exist in space at the same time. He moves and he kills; he moves and he kills. It is his fault, sure, if you define fault as presence. If Enzo Ferrari did not exist, these people might have lived.

Like all the best Michael Mann films, Ferrari moved me in a way I find impossible to describe. The tragedy of it all is so obvious: do not think that I weep for a car company’s founder so much as I do for the pain of ambition. Ferrari is not evil. That’s why he sucks so much, and why the pain he causes ripples across Modena. He makes things worse, sure, but that is often the price of living and moving. Wrong place, wrong time. Always, always. Objects are closer than they appear.