Today is the birthday of Michael Mann the movie director, so here is a piece on him that I have wanted to write for a long time. I hope you enjoy it.
I first heard of Michael Mann when I watched Miami Vice in the Eighties. I was taken by Mann’s heady cocktail of rock music, beautiful exotic locations and violent action. But it was more the ensemble, less Mann’s vision, that was exciting.
Then I saw Manhunter. Manhunter was a great movie, dark, captivating, I could not pull my eyes aeay from the screen. Manhunter was different, no formula cops, no crooks with bizarre plans for robberies that were clearly going to fail. In Manhunter you never have a clue to where the story is going. It was and is, a magnificent achievement. Over the years since it was released it has become a landmark film, critically praised and has a big following amongst movie buffs.
Then in 1995 Heat came out in London. Then, like now, London was in the grip of an ice-storm. I went to see Heat at a midday show the day after it’s UK premiere. I must have been one of 10 people in one of the biggest cinema in London. I sat in the front row. The climactic gun-battle left my ears ringing and the characters were etched on my memory
So I have always been a fan of Michael Mann’s movies. He has a lot to say about men and masculinity. Here is my take on his movies, and be warned, there arew some spoilers in here.
Michael Mann’s men have a terrible secret. They know how the world works. They see the world as an unashamedly savage place, where peace and security are an illusion. This gives them power and it gives them identity. They know who they are and are certain about their power and place in the world. They show themselves to the world as confident men. Ion a way this is incorrect, because they are beyond confident. At some point in their past (which we are not privileged to see) they became confident and absorbed that into themselves. They are Alpha Males, they operate in their area of competence, they know they are right, they are heroes and leaders and killers.
From the earliest movies we see how this works. In Thief, James Caan’s master safecracker knows the secret is to never give in to the feelings of fear and he has trained himself to live that way. His joy is in his competence as a thief, he is self-admiring. His gratitude is to the older criminal (Okla, played by Willie Nelson) who taught him the secret of life.
We see it again in Manhunter, where William Petersen’s serial killer tracker FBI agent is quietly authoritative and wise.
The other policemen are variously loud, harassed, coarse. Petersen’s Will Graham character is physically smaller, quieter than the others, yet he has a strength and a knowing that makes him more powerful than his colleagues.
In The Last of the Mohicans, Nathaniel is a white man brought up by the Native American Mohican tribe. He is the ultimate Alpha Male, he has the strength and earth-wisdom of the savage and the cerebral understanding of the white man. He exudes power and like many of Mann’s heroes, he enjoys it. He lives for the hunt, be it man or animal.
Dancing with the Devil
Mann’s men cannot be ordinary, they cannot be men who are plucked from obscurity and who show bravery out of their ordinary selves. They are powerful men and so they can only go for the big prize, to define society or to defy it. Harvey Mansfield in his book Manliness talks about manly men and amongst the capabilities he attributes to them are a willingness to stand for justice and a desire to seek danger and risk. Mann’s men risk everything, because that is the only thing that makes them feel alive. It is all about the competition and rarely about the prize. Mann’s movies are epic, stories of giants amongst men, small movies could not contain them.
So Mann’s men are there for combat, danger and victory. Will Graham in Manhunter knows he is the arbiter of justice, the protector of the innocent and puts his life and family at risk to destroy a terrible serial killer. In Collateral, Tom Cruise’s hitman is the centre of the world, as he sees it. He is on a one-man crusade to live his life by his rules and that means killing people. He knows he has the power and has only contempt for those who do not know how the world works. The difference between Will Graham and Cruise’s Vincent is empathy. Will Graham feels for others, Vincent cannot, and cannot understand goodness and the “straight” world
In the Keep, Mann’s Nazi horror movie, he makes dancing with the devil the literal truth. A crack Nazi platoon are sent to a Romanian castle where “partisans” are killing german soldiers. A Jewish scholar is brought to the castle under duress, to decrypt an occult inscription at the secen of the murders. He knows that he will be killed as soon as he succeeds in his task. He discovers that a demon haunts the castle and is killing the soldiers. As the demon grows in power, he offers the scholar a choice, side with him, help him kill the Nazis and make him stronger still. The scholar has to choose between his own death and releasing something truly evil into the world. As he enters into a perilous alliance with the monster, he is truly dancing with the devil.
In Heat, we get to see both sides of the coin. Al Pacino’s lieutenant Vincent Hanna is the prefect Mann protagonist. As head of the LA Robbery-Homicide team he takes on the most dangerous, violent robbery gangs. He lives for his job, for the chase. He has a family but they are almost incidental. What “keeps him sharp” as he tells us is talking down crime gangs, the bigger the better.
In De Niro’s boss robber Neil Macauley, he meets his match. In fact it is not too far from the truth to say that Hanna is thrilled when he realises that Macauley is a worthy adversary. Hanna tracks Macauley relentlessly and almost catches him in an early robbery. Macauley in turn sets Hanna up and outsmarts him. Heat is clever and quick and as a viewer you cannot afford to turn away from the screen for a second, the contest between the two men is captivating. It may be the greatest clash of equals ever seen on the movie screen.
In a reckless moment Hanna decides to up the ante and make himself known to Macauley. They meet in a coffee shop and in some terse dialogue define themselves as Alpha Males and agree what we the audience already know, it will be a duel to the death.
Here is the scene:
Vincent: So you never wanted a regular type life?
Neil: What the fuck is that? Barbeques and ballgames?
Neil: Regular type life, like your life?
Vincent: My life? No.. no, my life’s a disaster zone. I got a stepdaughter so fucked up because her real father’s this large-type asshole. I got a wife, we’re passing each other on the down-slope of a marriage — my third — because I spend all my time chasing guys like you around the block. That’s my life.
Neil: A guy told me one time, “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” Now, if you’re on me and you gotta move when I move, how do you expect to keep a… a marriage?
Vincent: That’s an interesting point. What are you a Monk?
Neil: I have a woman.
Vincent: Yeah, what do you tell her?
Neil: I tell her that I’m a salesman.
Vincent: So, if you spot me comin’ around that corner…You just gonna walk out on that woman?
Neil: That’s the discipline.
Vincent: You know, we are sitting here, you and I, like a couple of regular fellas. You do what you do, and I do what I gotta do. And now that we’ve been face to face, if I’m there and I gotta put you away, I won’t like it. But I tell you, if it’s between you and some poor bastard whose wife you’re gonna turn into a widow, brother, you are going down.
Neil: There is a flip side to that coin. What if you do got me boxed in and I gotta put you down? Cause no matter what, you will not get in my way. We’ve been face to face, yeah. But I will not hesitate. Not for a second.
Vincent: Maybe that’s the way it’ll be…Or, who knows?
Neil: Or maybe we’ll never see each other again.
But they know they will see each other again.
The climactic bank robbery in heat is one of the greatest shootouts ever filmed. No-one does a shoot-out as well as Michael Mann. In his movies both good and bad guys pack some serious weaponry.
Tough lives and good friends
Michael Mann’s heroes are not alone. This is not the maverick cop who lives out of a bottle of scotch. This is mean to be the real world, so each of them has their group. In Miami Vice, Crockett and Tubbs have their battered veteran of a boss, and the sexy but deadly Elizabeth Rodriguez as their latino gunslinger backup. Even Rico Tubbs wife is part of their crew, another cop.
In Manhunter, Will Graham’s profiler/detective is managed by the solid and fearless Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) and he is backed up by the crime teams at the FBI academy at Quantico. In Last of the Mohicans, Nathaniel’s bond is with his adopted Mohican brother Uncas, and his father Chingachgook.
In Heat, once again we get two for one. Al Pacino’s police lieutenant has a tough, fearless group of policemen working for him, while De Niro has his professional thieves, loyal and ruthless.
This is one of the things that makes Michael Mann great, even his secondary characters are very real. He builds a believable world for his heroes and invites us into it. What man would not want to take command of such brave loyal men and set out to victory. Their camaraderie stirs us up, bolsters our confidence and makes us want to go out to battle.
Women and the great escape
For everything there is a price. There comes a point for every man when they can no longer dance with the devil. They get lose something in themselves, they get too old or they lose their appetite for the battle. Mann’s men have never experienced this but they know the day will come and their only hope is to go out on a winning streak.
Women are the hope of Mann’s heroes. Women are drawn to Alpha Males and in these movies the heroes meet or are with some spectacular women. But the lives of these men make their relationships tumultuous and fragile. In Heat, Lieutenant Hanna’s marriage is crumbling due to his obsession with “the real world” of crime and gangs. In Thief, James Cann’s master safecracker desperately wants a wife and a family, so he goes about building one in the only way he knows, with singleminded determination. However he does not know how to keep that family safe from the violent world he lives in. In Last of the Mohicans, Nathaniel falls in love with Cora Munro (Madeline Stowe), a strong woman who understands frontier America. Yet the worlds they come from are light-years apart and the future of their relationship is doubtful. The only true victor in Mann’s films is Will Graham’s FBI profiler Will Graham, who has a loving and brave wife, but he is trapped in the battle with one of the most evil men America has ever spawned, and his marriage and family are directly in the firing line.
What draws men to Michael Mann’s films is the recognition and admiration of his men. We admire his masculine, courageous men and are drawn to their stories. Every Michael Mann film is a chase, where man have to show every part of themselves, expend every bit of courage and strength to achieve their goals. The movies are tragedies, in the true Shakespearean meaning of the word.
I love that these movies are epic, manly and exciting. They tell stories men want to be in. In Michael Mann’s movies, every man gets their chance but when he does so he finds the world is unremittingly hostile. So he has to beat it.
And the glory of these movies is that he does.
Copyright © 2009 What Makes a Man. All Rights Reserved