Maestro, Ferrari, and the State of the Modern Biopic

Early in Michael Mann’s Ferrari, his mother literally says, “The wrong son died,” which I guess proves that my long-standing advice that any filmmaker who is about to embark on a biopic must sit down and watch Walk Hard has still not been implemented. Mr. Mann has subtly resisted that label, and we know that Bradley Cooper is against it, thanks to Netflix publicists’ requests (“Please note that we’re not referring to the film as a biopic, we’d appreciate it if you did not list it as such”). We’ve been asked to call Maestro a “drama” or “biographical drama,” har har har, which is about as dopey as the same industry’s desperate waving of the term “elevated horror” a few years back. There’s nothing more irritating than a filmmaker doing something straightforward and making like they’re doing something unique. 

And it’s important to be direct about what’s happening here, and to understand it from a business standpoint. There’s a reason so many biopics are getting made: because the film industry is only comfortable bankrolling that which is familiar, so the only way you can get funding for the kind of mid-budget, adult-oriented, character-driven dramas that they used to greenlight all the time is by wrapping it up in what amounts to IP for adults.

Which is not to say that these two filmmakers aren’t at least trying to depart from the standard playbooks. As he did with his musical drama A Star is Born, Cooper is doing his absolute damndest to shake the dust off of a tired genre and its exhausted conventions, and as with that film, the opening stretch is the most affecting: the offhandedness and genuine warmth of the Meet Cute scenes between Leonard Bernstein (Cooper) and future wife Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan), which emphasize character over plotting and dialogue over narrative. He’s also clearly made the wise decision to ape the look and style of Citizen Kane, deploying theatrical lighting and compression of space, using clever transitions between scenes (some of them imaginary), and a presentational aesthetic, even at one point, in a winking nod to Bernstein’s own work, dropping his young couple into a dream ballet.

It’s all mighty lively, thanks to Matthew Libatique’s sumptuous black and white photography and Cooper and Josh Singer’s script, where the dialogue sounds like conversation, natural give and take, not the horrid expositional pablum typical of biopics; instead, they find natural moments for backfilling of information (like a Person to Person interview that simultaneously serves to show the first signs of strain in the union).

The mistake they make, as so many other biopics (or “biographical dramas”) do, is tackling a vast amount of time, and having to compress it into roughly two hours. For all of the ingenuity and playfulness of that first act, Maestro still hits the beats: we open in color, with Bernstein as an old man, finishing up a piano song, overcome with emotion (“I miss her terribly”) before we jump back into black and white, certain (consciously or sub-) that we’ll return to these golden years at the picture’s conclusion. 

Mann and his Ferrari screenwriter Troy Kennedy Martin make the wiser decision, previously demonstrated by Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Ava DuVernay’s Selma and similarly effective in George C. Wolfe’s recent Rustin, to magnify and focus, eschewing the fool’s errand of telescoping an entire life into a feature film and instead focusing on a single incident or short period of time that tells us much about the subject. Save for a bit of faux pre-title archival footage, and a pair of mercifully brief flashbacks to key moments earlier in each of his primary relationships, the entirety of Ferrari takes place in the key year of 1957. It’s ten years after Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver) began his business and a year after the death of his son Alfredo, whose crypt he visits near the beginning of the picture, which walks alongside him on a seemingly typical day. Enzo pours his heart out to his dead son, like a therapist — or, perhaps more accurately, confesses to him, like a priest. “There was a time I loved your mother, beyond reason,” he admits. “She was a different creature then. But so was I.” 

The time he mentions has clearly passed; the first time we see them together, his wife Laura (Penélope Cruz) greets him with a gun in her hand. Her own visit to Alfredo’s grave, moments after his, is markedly different: she doesn’t say a single word, but it’s no less powerful — a full emotional journey on her face and in her eyes. Laura acknowledges, and in some sense accepts, his “whoring around”; he has not admitted the more hurtful truth, that he not only loves another woman, but has fathered another son with her, and keeps them as a second family. 

This candid and probing investigation of a philandering Great Man is the other common thread that binds Maestro and Ferrari, beyond their proximate release dates and designation (wanted or not) as biopics. And it is here that Mann truly outshines Cooper, despite the latter’s best efforts. It’s easy to tell, from the way the second half or so of the picture unspools, that Cooper made the deliberate decision to make Maestro not about Bernstein and Montealegre’s lives, but their relationship. The trouble is, one (or, at least, Cooper) can do either a multi-decade narrative or a nuanced relationship drama, and in trying to do both, he does neither particularly well. As defined here, these characters and their conflicts only have so much juice, and they’ve been given such simple defining traits that their arguments grow monotonous. It reduces them to a few spare, dramatic qualities, which is the frequent problem with films like these; the characters became placeholders, rather than people.

It’s not precisely that the narrower focus of Ferrari solves the problem; Napoleon, for example, covers much of its subject’s life, but director Ridley Scott focuses primarily on the complicated psycho-sexual dynamic between Napoleon (Joaquin Phoenix) and Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), and finds that that’s where the real juice lies. Conversely, Rustin gives its subject, the out gay civil rights activist Byard Rustin (Colman Domingo, exquisite) a complicated love interest in the form of the fictional — or at least composite — Elias (Johnny Ramey), a married minister who takes up with Rustin on the down-low. That’s a compelling enough relationship, but Rustin also has another, longer-term, jealous boyfriend (Gus Halper), and that plot is kind of a dud — it’s not that it’s uninteresting, it’s just so standard.

The romantic entanglements of Ferrari’s title character take up a fair amount of its running time, but there is also enough bandwidth for Mann to meditate on mortality and risk, in the danger of the racing that is Ferrari’s true fire: “We all know it’s our deadly passion,” he tells his drivers, “our terrible joy. “ This is a man haunted by death, by ghosts of the past and specters of the danger to come, and we also get a strong sense, when characters mouth dialogue like “We all know death is nearby,” that Mann is thinking not just about Ferrari’s life, but (at 80) his own.

Maestro isn’t altogether bad, to be clear. Cooper’s filmmaking continues to mature impressively — I like how he stages a couple of pivot scenes in unbroken mediums and wides, with no cuts or coverage, framing himself and his co-stars loosely and letting them act — and his own performance is one of his best. The thorny things he’s doing in the scene where he lies to his daughter (Maya Hawke) are layered and rich, and there’s a raw and rare private moment late in the picture where he slams down a phone, shuts the door, and lets himself go. Also, the smash-cut to Tears for Fears’ “Shout” is a four-star, A-plus moment.

But Mann’s juxtapositions are even more ingenious; a timing run around the track intercut with the rituals of mass, for one, or the cut from mangled bodies to the cheering crowd — I mean, that’s the whole movie, right there. As with his finest films, Ferrari is at its best when it’s most experiential: the roar of the engine, the speed of the camera movement, the rip of the cuts, the excitement and anticipation of roaring off the starting line before day has broken, the click-click-click cutting, even as Enzo just takes a regular daily drive.  And, as ever, there is the intimacy of his camera, his consistent desire to get as close as he can to the faces and (especially) the eyes of his subjects, so he can peer into their very souls. That urgency, that desire, is what elevates Ferrari from the biopic pack. But hey, at least Maestro ends with some footage of the real guy.

“Maestro” is on Netflix now. “Ferrari” is in theaters on Christmas Day.

Ferrari: A – 

Maestro: C+

Jason Bailey is a film critic and historian, and the author of five books. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Playlist, Vanity Fair, Vulture, Rolling Stone, Slate, and more. He is the co-host of the podcast "A Very Good Year."

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