Opinion: The accidental revelation in ‘Ferrari’

Sometimes they are portrayed as literal superheroes, like industrialist billionaire Tony Stark in the “Iron Man” films. Sometimes they get hagiographic biopics, such as McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc in “The Founder” (2016). Sometimes they are characters in films celebrating iconic products — Nike’s Phil Knight in this year’s “Air” or Henry Ford II in “Ford vs. Ferrari” (2019).

Whatever the genre, they’re portrayed as brave visionaries with some idiosyncratic flaws (say, sexual infidelity) who overcome staid conventional wisdom to save the world/deliver reliable food at a cheap price/make a branded athletic shoe/push capitalism forward for the good of all.

Michael Mann’s new film “Ferrari,” about the genius titan of industry Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver), drives down much the same “innovative” road as its predecessors. The difference is that “Ferrari” is much blunter about the worst-case results of capitalist exploitation. Those worst cases are visually spectacular — but they also make it a good deal harder to root for Enzo than Mann perhaps intended. The film leaves you questioning why we’re cheering on this rich guy and his wealth accumulation in the first place.

Based on Brock Yates’ 1991 Ferrari biography, the movie is set in the summer of 1957. Ferrari’s company is undercapitalized and facing bankruptcy. The relationship between Enzo and his wife Laura (Penélope Cruz, struggling gamely with a clichéd role) is disintegrating, in part because of the death of their son. That unraveling is exacerbated when Laura discovers that Enzo has a longstanding mistress Lina Lardi (Shailene Woodley), who is raising her own son by Enzo. Enzo hopes to attract a new business partner and solve all his domestic and business problems by winning the prestigious cross-country race Mille Miglia, between Brescia and Rome. He pins his hopes especially on his new Spanish driver, Alfonso de Portago (Gabriel Leone.)

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Viewers are supposed to sympathize with Enzo’s predicaments as he negotiates with his wife and mistress, as he plays with his son, as he fights to preserve his company. There is a problem with Enzo as capitalist hero, however. Preserving his company means risking people’s lives.

Racing cars in the 1950s was very dangerous: the cars often broke down and lacked safety features we take for granted — even seatbelts weren’t mandatory — and given the way the drivers go flying out of their cars, Enzo’s drivers weren’t wearing them. Deaths happen often enough that Enzo says he’s made it a point not to get too close to his drivers.

The movie frames the danger of death as part of what’s exciting about the races. There are close-ups of the driver’s determined, handsome faces, and repeated references to their attractive girlfriends, the complement to rugged manliness. De Portago is dating Mexican film actress Linda Christian (Sarah Gadon), a famous Hollywood sex symbol of the time.

It’s hard to miss the way that Enzo has built his fortune literally on the blood and bones of his workers. That’s especially apparent when he delivers a pep talk before the Mille Miglia, in which he chastises his drivers for being too cautious. He tells them that if a driver from another company is about to pass them, they should be willing to kill themselves and the opponent rather than admit defeat.

“We all know it’s a deadly passion, our terrible joy,” Enzo insists, with all of Adam Driver’s powers of earnest eloquence. But of course, while Enzo may be passionate, he’s not the one who’s going to die. And while he may find the races a joy, he also literally makes money from them. He’s telling the drivers to sacrifice themselves for his bank account.

Penelope Cruz in "Ferrari"

Penelope Cruz in “Ferrari”Lorenzo Sisti/NEON

The press in the film try to tell this story; one reporter refers to Enzo as “Saturn devouring his young children.” But Enzo insists the reporters are “vultures,” exaggerating his culpability. The movie mostly expects viewers to take Enzo’s view as the correct one. But then it also shows Enzo carefully manipulating the press. He dangles access as an incentive for friendly coverage. He even hands over bribes.

Again, the movie attempts to portray Enzo’s ethical lapses as an indication of his refusal to play by the rules and as evidence of his absolute dedication to building a better race car. You could also see those payouts to media, though, as a rank, corrupt coverup.

Dying for the enrichment of your employer http://saladbiji.com/ may seem like an extreme form of capitalism. But it’s not that uncommon. Workplace deaths have thankfully fallen a great deal since the mid-20th century, but they remain an issue. In 2018, 5,250 US workers died of occupational injuries. And, in line with the storyline in “Ferrari,” the overwhelming majority of those deaths (92%), were men.

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