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Ferrari is must-see, but not the greatest racing movie ever

Most of the first theater goers for Ferrari, the new movie directed by Michael Mann, with Adam Driver as the title character and Penelope Cruz as his wife, will be car people.  That might change quickly, because the film and those actors' performances will appeal to everyone, not just race fans.

Based on Brock Yates’ book, Enzo Ferrari: The Man, the Cars, the Races, the Machine, the movie is not a true biopic.  What the audience learns about Il Commendatore’s extraordinarily rich and interesting history is mainly from dialogue and the rare flashback scenes. 

The movie is about the legendary car builder and team owner’s personal and professional struggles right after the death of his son Alfredo 'Dino' Ferrari in 1956. 

He has a mistress and illegitimate son, a grieving and bitter wife/business partner, and severe financial troubles as he prepares his team for the world's premier sports car race, the Mille Miglia, run on public roads between Brescia and Rome, Italy.

Ferrari was desperate for a resounding victory, because the ‘win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ concept was as true then as it is today.

This was at a time when racing was most dangerous.  And not just to the drivers.

In the 1938 1000-mile race, a car crashed and killed 10 spectators, including seven children. Over the Mille Miglia's 30-year history, 56 people lost their lives.

At the 1955 24 hours of Le Mans, a Mercedes-Benz went flying into the grandstands, killing the driver and 82 spectators, and injuring scores more.

In the 1957 Mille Miglia, Scuderia Ferrari finished 1-2-3 with Ferraris taking seven of the top 10 finishing positions.  But an accident near the end of the race took the lives of factory Ferrari driver Alphonso de Portago and navigator Edmund Nelson, plus nine spectators, four of them children.

That was the very last Mille Miglia, but as everyone knows, it was just the beginning for the man behind the bright red race cars and prancing horse logo.

This film's cinematography, production design, visual effects and music are excellent.  The lighting is a bit dark, which is appropriate for a drama that deals with death, despair, danger, and tragedy.

Adam Driver is a generational artist who is nearing the stature of a Brando, Pacino, or DeNiro, thanks to performances like this.  He shines as Enzo Ferrari during the darkest period of the automaker's long life. (Note: if you'd like to see Driver in a lighter role, check out Logan Lucky.)

Penelope Cruz, who in 2008 won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, should be nominated again, this time as Best Actress, for her portrayal of Laura Ferrari.  She dominates every scene she is in.

Real racer and actor Patrick Dempsey, aka Dr. McDreamy from the Scrubs TV series, plays Piero Taruffi, the driver who actually won the last, tragic, Mille Miglia, and then promptly retired. It was a small role, as was the role of Lina Lardi, Enzo's lover, played by Shailene Woodley. Neither disappointed.

The movie opened on Christmas day.  Rotten Tomatoes rates it as 74% positive, reflecting 174 opinions.  Not a huge sampling.

We saw it at at the first showing. There were maybe 30 people in the theater, and about half of us were wearing race shirts or car jackets.  We all gasped and laughed and silently squirmed at the same times.  The two hours passed quickly.


Some scenes are gruesomely accurate, and there is a lot more talking than racing in the movie, but when the very realistic cars are fired up and running, the sounds alone are worth the prices of admission.

It will never be compared to Grand Prix, RUSH, Le Mans, or Winning. Ferrari is not that kind of movie. But it's captivating, thrilling, well-written and beautifully produced. Don't wait for it to come to a streaming channel. This movie should be seen this on a theater screen, the bigger the better. 

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