Michael Mann: A Director Caught Between the Real and the Abstract

Photo: Dreamworks Productions

There’s a strange little moment early on in Michael Mann’s new cyberthriller Blackhat that gives you an idea of the kind of movie it’s going to be. Convicted computer expert Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), newly released from federal prison to help hunt an elusive hacker who’s attacked both China and the U.S., steps out onto an airfield to board a plane. In slow-motion, Hathaway walks out and gazes at the blank, vast expanse of tarmac and sky before him. It’s the freest this character has been in many years, and he doesn’t quite know what to do with … all this space. A beautiful Chinese network engineer, Lien (Tang Wei), also one of the good guys, comes up and touches Hathaway’s arm, to ask if he’s okay. The camera lingers between them, and then the moment passes.

Coming so early amid the rhythms of an ordinary crime flick, such a scene might come across as a strange disruption — maybe even a mistake, a dopey romantic frill. But the moment also speaks to what makes Mann’s films so unique, and why some of us find them so mesmerizing: A man and a woman bonding over an empty stretch of sky can be more revealing than mountains of backstory and dialogue. “She intuits that there’s something agoraphobic for him about this wide space at the airport,” Mann says, on the phone from Los Angeles. “It’s disturbing him. He’s lost, and without a compass … He has been institutionalized to a greater degree than he’s aware of. She has an intuitive sense about him. That’s one of the unquantifiable connections that we have in life.”

Unquantifiable Connections could be the alternate title of every Michael Mann movie. The director is known for his exhaustive research into the subcultures he depicts — be they professional thieves, veteran cops, 18th-century frontiersmen, Depression-era gangsters, or hotshot journalists — and he has already discussed at length how he immersed himself in the world of hacking after learning about Stuxnet, the mysterious computer worm that targeted Iran’s nuclear program in 2010. But with Mann, there’s always another reason he becomes interested in a project: a harder-to-pin-down, emotional connection, one that’s about the way his characters move through the world, and their intuitive, often wordless reactions to each other.  

In most films, such connections provide grace notes to the main story. Increasingly, in Mann’s films, the mundane, genre-friendly details of the plot — however well-researched they may be — have taken a backseat to the network of glances and embraces and murmuring cityscapes and moody longueurs that are the director’s stylistic hallmarks. Mann has always been the kind of director who can shoot a city street and fill it with ineffable longing. But more and more, his high-definition video images turn spaces and buildings and even people into cosmic abstractions. Late in Blackhat, filming a character death, Mann closes in on their eyes. He then cuts to a shot of a lone skyscraper in the hazy night, as the screen slowly goes black. In this final glance through a dead person’s eyes — a nod to the German Expressionist films that were so formative to Mann’s early years — the building becomes something spiritual and surreal, almost totemic. 

Blackhat is rife with such elements, and you can also sense it in the way Mann describes his characters and the post-globalized world they live in … correction: the post-globalized world they move in. “With all this data and interconnectedness, our world has shrunk to a great degree,” the director explains. “We move through what used to be the boundaries of nation-states with much more agility.” He notes that when two characters become fugitives later in the film, “they also become citizens of the world … You think about how [Edward] Snowden moved. There are people in China whom I know, who negotiated getting him to Russia. These are things that were inconceivable a hundred years ago. They were very difficult 20 years ago. It makes John Dillinger look like he was in the Stone Age.”

Dillinger, the Depression-era bank-robber played by Johnny Depp in Mann’s 2009 film Public Enemies, didn’t have the internet, but he did have the two-lane blacktops that had recently connected the country, and he had, the director notes, “a rate of acquiring familiarity with the Zeitgeist” that was “astonishing.” Public Enemies was, in some senses, a precursor to Blackhat, in the way it depicted brand-new technologies being harnessed by both the underworld and law enforcement, giving both sides an interconnectedness and a power that had never been seen before. But it wasn’t a movie for history buffs or typical genre enthusiasts. Mann depicted everything with a kind of hallucinatory fervor — never more so than in a beautiful scene late in the film, when the outlaw silently wanders into the FBI office where his own manhunt is being coordinated, strolling through unnoticed while the agents on duty are too busy listening to a ball game on the radio.

Technology, movement, the exploration of space: These have always been themes in Mann’s films, but in recent years, they have become key factors in his career, too. In fact, one could date the increasing experimentalism of his work to his discovery of the possibilities of digital video while making Ali, his Will Smith–starring 2001 biopic of Muhammad Ali. “It was something that happened quite by accident,” he recalls.” I shot a couple of pieces, and we were able to light them by taking a tiny flashlight and bouncing it off a card. We were shooting a human being, working out on the roof, and he sees these fires in the distance. I was stunned by this one quality it had, which was not like moviemaking: There was a truth-telling style to the visuals, and the emotions were more powerful because it didn’t feel theatrical.”

Although Ali was mostly shot on film, it featured numerous scenes shot on digital-video cameras. “I analyzed afterwards what was going on to make me feel this way,” Mann says. “I realized it was because we had subtracted the theatrical lighting — which we’re all used to, and which we celebrate when it’s done by brilliant guys like Vittorio Storaro or Chivo Lubezki … Everybody unconsciously sees it and knows that it’s something crafted, not something that feels real. That subtraction of the theatrical convention of how we light is very powerful.” The digital-video scenes lent Ali an electric, you-are-there immediacy. But along with it came something more illusory and fragile, as if this pixellated world could vanish in an instant.

Hyperrealism and hyperabstraction — increasingly, Mann’s films seem to dance between these two extremes. The 2006 film version of Miami Vice is filled with impenetrably authentic jargon about law-enforcement procedures and drug-dealer-speak. But as an experience, it’s something else: You can be on a speedboat making a drug run one minute, jump in a squad car and zoom off to a calamitous hostage standoff the next, then set up an epic drug exchange and wind up in a climactic three-way gangland bloodbath, only to end the night in a beachside safe house trying to calm the woman you love, who happens to be a criminal financial advisor who’s just discovered you’re a cop. As a procedural, it’d be ridiculous. But at some point, you realize that what you’re watching is not a procedural. It’s a dream.

To some degree, such elements were always there in his work. When Mann made his first theatrical feature, Thief, starring James Caan, some critics took the film to task for being too aestheticized and underwritten. Others were drawn by its minute attention to detail and striking images and sounds. Thief didn’t do well at the box office, but it has since become a classic, and its influence can be felt everywhere. Mann would eventually have his share of theatrical hits, but it was his success in television, particularly as the executive producer of the ’80s NBC hit Miami Vice, that helped turn him into a brand name. Nowadays, even his box-office flops are regarded with a healthy degree of retrospective reverence: The 1986 thriller Manhunter, based on Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon and featuring Brian Cox as Dr. Hannibal Lecter (his first cinematic iteration), made virtually no money in theatrical release, but it now feels essential — a film whose surface cool and elegiac pop soundscapes are as unnerving as its grisly serial-killer plot.

Over the next decade, Mann had a string of commercial and critical successes that solidified his status as a major American auteur and keen visual stylist. 1992’s Last of the Mohicans was a lush, insanely romantic, breakneck adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s novel, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Hawkeye, the white scout raised by Indians, and Madeleine Stowe as the daughter of a British general; it was one of the signature action films of the ’90s. Heat (1995) gave us Robert De Niro leading a crack group of master criminals and Al Pacino as the jaded, brilliant LAPD detective chasing them; it’s now considered one of the greatest crime epics of all time. The Insider (1999) was a fact-based drama about 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Pacino, again) and his efforts to get Brown & Williamson scientist Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) to blow the lid off the tobacco industry’s shady practices; it was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in 2000, and if the Academy ever got the opportunity to redo that year’s vote, there’s a good chance Mann’s film would win.

Since then, the immediate response to Mann’s films has been more mixed. Collateral, starring Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise, was another critical and commercial hit, but films like Ali, Miami Vice, and Public Enemies have been a lot more divisive. Indeed, there’s something wonderfully obstinate about Mann’s films of the past decade and a half or so; one senses that he doesn’t let a box-office-friendly logline undo his artistic ambitions. And the immaculate aesthetics of his earlier films have been replaced by something less composed, more unhinged. Cameras often follow characters close along their heads, as if trying to see from behind their eyes. Perspective fragments among different characters and many, many different angles of a scene. Seemingly stolen shots jut up uncomfortably against what sometimes looks like surveillance footage.

When he talks about video, one senses that Mann is looking for an entirely new way of expression and of making you see. On Public Enemies, he says, “my objective was to make you walk in the shoes and see through the eyes of John Dillinger — to relay his experience as it was happening — instead of seeing him as a third-party observer. I wanted to bring you into that world, like you’re walking out of the Biograph in 1933. There’s a car, there’s a hood ornament, and there’s the condensation on the metal and the glass, and it’s all as vivid and high relief as it is in real life.”

To illustrate his relationship to video, Mann uses one of his beloved architectural metaphors and points to the evolution of the modern skyscraper. “When technology, i.e., steel, entered the picture and people were able to build tall buildings, they didn’t know what a tall building looked like. So, primarily in New York, they took the classical maison — ground floor, first floor, and the intervening three floors, with a pediment roof. And instead of the intervening three floors, they made them the intervening 23 floors. So all around New York, you’ll see what look like houses stretched skywards … You’re building with steel, but you don’t know what it should look like, so you make it look like a masonry building. But in Chicago, you have the Monadnock Building, which is the first tall building that has a form derived from its function and technology. That analogy holds true for me and film: If I’m going to use video, I want to find an aesthetic that derives from that technology. I’m not interested in making it look like film.”

Blackhat is likely to be as divisive as Mann’s other recent films — if not more so. But one senses he wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s an odd position for a filmmaker to be in. For many of us, he’s a living legend — an Old Master, almost — whose nighttime exteriors and quiet shots of stoic faces have become as much a signature as John Ford's Monument Valley vistas or Martin Scorsese's New York streetscapes. At the same time, he's still working to some extent in the studio system, on genre movies like Blackhat, which, on paper, at least, look like they're there to make money. But he’s won his independence over these many decades, and it seems he’s determined to push the boundaries of what’s possible in an ostensibly mainstream film.

Is it getting harder to do so? He notes, with irony, that this notorious independence may have actually put him in a curiously fortuitous spot. “It’s not harder for me to make these kinds of films. In fact, it’s probably easier, because there’s some self-selection that goes on. People who want a journeyman director who’s going to shoot it and then leave and let the studio finish cutting it, and it’s the third sequel to something — they don’t call.” Then he adds, with a laugh, “And I’d encourage them not to call!”