erik lundegaard

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Michael Mann Among Men

Director likes his men cool, professional, and in pairs

Michael Mann is aptly named. His movies are about men, and what men have to do in order to stay men. These guys are tough, cool, professional. They don’t talk much and when they do it’s to-the-point. Mann is from Chicago, and in the documentary “Chicago Filmmakers on the Chicago River,” film critic Gene Siskel said, “I think the Chicago style, if there is one, is very direct... People talk plainly.”

So with Mann. Even his titles talk plainly: “Thief,” “Heat,” “Ali,” “Collateral.” No wasted words. In “Heat,” a new member of a heist crew, Waingro (Kevin Gage), says a dozen unnecessary words and is told, matter-of-factly, “Stop talking, okay Slick?” Sloppy with words, Waingro is sloppy on the job and kills unnecessarily. When the crew leader, Neil (Robert De Niro), is paying off Nate (Jon Voight), the man who set up the score, the two talk business; then they have this exchange about Waingro:

Nate: What happened out there?
Neil: Don’t ask.

That’s it. They have a verbal shorthand that goes along with Mann’s visual shorthand. In “Thief,” a lawyer is holding his face in his hands as he talks to a judge. Don’t blink. He’s bribing the judge based on how many fingers he’s holding against his face. Just as Neil demands professionalism from his crew, Mann demands professionalism from his audience. He plops you in the middle of storylines. He explains little, or later. If you’re one of those “Who’s that guy? And why’s he after that guy?” type of moviegoers, you’re going to have trouble with a Michael Mann movie.

‘Nothing means nothing’

Mann’s protagonists are often broken by life before the movie even begins. For Frank (James Caan) in “Thief,” prison breaks him. For Will Graham (William L. Peterson) in “Manhunter,” it’s Hannibal Lector. For Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) in “The Insider,” it’s Brown & Williamson Tobacco. Like Hemingway’s heroes, Mann’s heroes are often stronger in the broken places.

Emotional distance is the key. “You got to get where nothing means nothing,” Frank says in “Thief.”

“Do not let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat,” Neil says in “Heat.” This emotional distance gets them into trouble with their women. Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) in “Heat” doesn’t share enough with his wife; ditto Jeffrey Wigand in “The Insider.” Both wives are high-maintenance and played beautifully by Diane Venora.

There’s always a tension in a Mann film between the tough stoicism necessary to survive in the world and a warm embrace at the end of the day. Does the woman make the man stronger or weaker? Does she understand? Is she attuned to the verbal shorthand? This would seem to relegate women to second-class status, but at the least his female characters are real characters and often more interesting than female leads in other movies. Some of Mann’s best scenes are conversations between men and women: Caan and Tuesday Weld at the diner in “Thief”; Jamie Foxx and Jada Pinkett Smith in the cab in “Collateral.” His men reveal little; the point of the movie is to reveal something; women help.

The men who don’t have women (yet) gravitate toward that other great life-giver: the sea. After his initial heist, Frank shares a Danish with a fisherman on the pier and watches the sun rise over the ocean. “Look at that, huh?” Frank says. “That’s magic,” the fisherman agrees.

After his initial heist, Neil, bathed in blue, stares out at the sea, but you get a lonelier feeling from him. The sea is no longer enough. In “Manhunter,” Will Graham needs both life-givers — he makes love to his wife bathed in the blue light by the sea — but his subsequent investigation into the Tooth Fairy Killer endangers his family, necessitating a move to an apartment where the sea is only a thing painted on the wall. Jeffrey Wigand in “The Insider” is also forced from his family and into a hotel room where the sea is painted on the wall. This is not a good sign in a Michael Mann movie.

‘Your kid is mine’

The quintessential Mann hero is the well-named Frank in “Thief.” An independent jewel thief, he attracts the attention of the Chicago mob just as he’s trying to attract the attention of a restaurant hostess played by Tuesday Weld. With them he’s uninterested and brusque; with her he’s interested and clumsy; with both he’s brutally honest. But the only way to win the girl, he finds, is to collaborate with the mob so he can make that one big score and get out. He gets in deeper when mob boss Leo (Robert Prosky) helps him adopt a kid. Now he has something to lose and Leo knows it and goes back on his word. Leo wants him not for one score but for life. When Frank balks, Leo kills his friend and Frank is beaten. “Your kid is mine because I bought it,” Leo tells a prone Frank. “You got him on loan. He is leased, you are renting him. I'll whack out your whole family. People will be eatin' them in their lunch tomorrow, in their Wimpyburgers, and not know it.”

Frank’s journey is from feeling nothing (and having nothing to lose) to feeling something (and having everything to lose). So he journeys back. He destroys his life so Leo can’t; then he destroys Leo. It’s a great storyline arc. There’s a sad irony to it. It’s Frank’s independent professionalism that attracts the group, resulting in the collaboration and the subsequent lack of independence. And it’s the needs of the family that spur the collaboration, even as the collaboration winds up destroying the family.

Does this irony seem familiar? It should. It’s yours. Mann’s men may have cool jobs (jewel thief, FBI agent, heavyweight champion of the world), but their dilemma is every man’s dilemma. Most of us start out with some token of independence; but to survive, and to benefit our families, we collaborate with a group or company or corporation. Once we’re in, they’ve got us. Once we need it, we’re lost.

It’s also — no coincidence — the director’s dilemma vis a vis the studio. We all want a little independence.

‘Corporate has some questions’

This is the main tension in a Mann film — between the I and the we, the individual and the group. Mann’s protagonists find themselves drawn into partnerships they don’t desire: Frank with the Chicago mob, Will Graham with the FBI (and later with the Tooth Fairy Killer), Nathaniel Poe (Daniel Day-Lewis) in “Last of the Mohicans” with the British Army, Muhammad Ali (Will Smith) in “Ali” with the U.S. Army, Max (Jamie Foxx) in “Collateral” with the professional killer Vincent (Tom Cruise).

The most complex example of this tension is seen in “The Insider,” Mann’s best movie. At the beginning of the film, Jeffrey Wigand realizes dramatic differences with his group, Brown & Williamson Tobacco, and walks out its doors in slow motion. He is an “I” again. But he soon finds himself drawn into a partnership with his professional counterpart, “60 Minutes” producer Lowell Bergmann (Al Pacino), on whether to betray his original group for a larger principle. Wigand winds up risking everything — family, name, freedom — to do this. Then CBS balks. CBS wants to risk nothing and refuses to air Wigand’s interview. Now it’s Bergmann’s turn to risk everything. He betrays his group — CBS, Don Hewitt, Mike Wallace — for a larger principle. He’s successful. The interview airs. But in doing so he realizes dramatic differences with CBS, and at the end of the film walks out its doors in slow motion. He is an “I” again.

Both men don’t quite fit in with their group. Wigand is a man of science who finds himself in a sales culture that uses science to harmful effect. Bergmann is a radical New Left journalist who works for a news division with increasingly corporate concerns. Sure, there are benefits to being with the group. Wigand makes good money; he goes to golf tournaments; he provides for his family. “What the hell is wrong with that?” he asks.

Bergmann makes good money, too; he has access. “I’m Lowell Bergmann, I’m from ‘60 Minutes,’” he says late in the film, then muses, “You know, you take the ‘60 Minutes’ out of that sentence nobody returns your phone calls.” Still, he leaves. Still, Wigand leaves. For most of us, corporations creep further into our lives. The film is about two men who win a battle in a war we are losing everywhere else.

‘Ed Sadlowski’s steel workers local’

Who is Michael Mann? He is one of his characters: a professional who does his homework. Listen to his actors. In AFI’s “The Directors” documentary series, Christopher Plummer says of Mann, “Michael’s intense attention to detail is extraordinary” Tom Sizemore says, “He knows the color of his character’s socks.” William Peterson adds, “His vision is the movie. I’ve never experienced that kind of detail work from a director. Ever.”

Listen to Mann himself. In his commentary for “Heat,” he points out a dead bird in a corner of a pool and talks about the difficulty of setting up that shot. “It’s a small detail,” he adds. “I don’t know if anyone picks up on it.” It’s what every detail man wonders.

In his commentary for “Collateral” Mann talks about Vincent’s backstory — stuff that, at best, is communicated indirectly onscreen. “Tom and I did a lot of work in trying to understand where this guy came from,” he says. “If he was in a foster home, if he had an institutionalized childhood, and he was back in the public school system at age 11, that would have been sometime in the ’70s. He would have been dressed very awkwardly. He would have probably been ostracized cause he looked odd, and the kind of brutality, you know, pre-teens and early adolescents [have]. We postulated an alcoholic abusive father who was culturally very progressive. He was probably part of Ed Sadlowski’s steel-workers local in Gary. He was a Vietnam Veteran. He had friends who were African American on the south side of Chicago. The Checkerboard Lounge is 30 minutes away at the Calumet Skyway, so the father probably, in the ’60s and ’70s, was an aficionado of jazz.”

In most films you sense nothing behind them. In Mann’s films you sense the other seven-eighths of the iceberg.

‘There’s undercover. And then there’s ‘Which way is up?’

You get this feeling in “Miami Vice,” too. Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) is with Trudy Joplin (Naomie Harris) but you swear she has some history with Tubbs’ partner, Crockett (Colin Farrell). Certain glances. Certain tones.

Once again, Mann plops us in the middle of a storyline with little or no explanation. Once again, we are dealing with a pair of tough guys trained in firearms. Once again, one of these guys forms an attachment to a woman that might backfire.

The plot turns out to be simple — undercover work, drug cartel, bang bang — even if the execution is not. There’s a tenseness to the film from the first frame. Everything is wound so tightly. You wait for a little release; a sigh that never comes. The only thing loose are plot points Mann doesn’t tie up. In anticipation of sequels?

“Vice” isn’t as satisfying as most of Mann’s films because most of his films are really character studies. But there’s only so much character you can study when your leading men are undercover. The “I” and “we” tension is missing as well. “Vice” is the only Mann film where the protagonists begin and end with the same group: the Miami-Dade Police.

Still, the visuals are there. All that blue water being intersected by the white wake of the speedboat —like an aquatic contrail. The breathtaking Iguasso Falls. In “Chicago Filmmakers on the Chicago River,” Mann talks about visuals being impressed upon him before he decided to become a filmmaker: “A particular kind of moody appeal,” he says of Chicago. “A gloomy poetry.” “Miami Vice” is more gloomy poetry. Two words, it should be added, that you rarely find associated with sequel-generating films.

—“The Insider” is not only Erik Lundegaard’s favorite Michael Mann movie; it’s one of his favorite movies ever. This article was originally published on 7/25/06 on MSNBC.com.)