“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” — Dr. Martin Luther King, The Measure of a Man
One of the major tenets of masculinity is the notion that men must not merely live their lives but be active participants within them. The implicit requirement that each man must pick a “side” and stand for something is inherent within society, and that drive is bolstered by individuals who are singled out, men who become symbols that leave legacies behind for other men to follow. The tension between the pressure of having to make bold, big choices while remaining responsible to one’s family and loved ones leads to doubt, indecision, paranoia and both internal and external conflict. These pressures can’t be wholly avoided, either — whether on a macro or micro scale, every man will encounter at least one if not several points in his life where a decision must be made, one that will decide their destiny and what he stands for.
Michael Mann was at his own decision point in the late 90s; after the release of his 1995 crime saga opus Heat, making another film about cops and robbers too soon after would be setting himself up for a fall. Instead of immediately returning to that well, Mann was inspired by the 1996 Vanity Fair article “The Man Who Knew Too Much” by Marie Brenner, a saga of a one-time tobacco company executive, Jeffrey Wigand, who blew the whistle on Brown & Williamson on an episode of CBS’ 60 Minutes. The episode almost didn’t air, thanks to the tobacco companies (not just Brown & Williamson) all being involved in research to make cigarettes more addictive and attempting to keep their secret by applying their significant legal and financial powers toward disgracing Wigand and gagging 60 Minutes. Mann’s resulting adaptation of these real life events, 1999’s The Insider, splits its focus between Wigand (Russell Crowe), his life spinning out of control thanks to his career, credibility and family slipping away, and CBS News producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), who crusades to keep Wigand’s story alive and puts his own reputation and job on the line. Like any biopic, The Insider takes some dramatic license with depicting these events, yet Mann’s predilection for thorough research and accuracy allows for as much truth to remain in the movie as possible.
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Standing for truth in The Insider has its consequences, as both Wigand and Bergman’s masculine traits are tested due to their commitment to the facts. In Wigand’s case, his idealized domestic life with his two daughters and wife Liane (Diane Venora) is torn asunder as the loss of his job impacts the family’s financial status, forcing them to move to a smaller home and Wigand himself to get a new job as a schoolteacher. Crowe’s character attempts to counter Brown & Williamson’s actions by portraying the macho aggressor, putting on a tough guy act when being given terms of his severance by his ex-bosses and attempting to help protect his family by buying a handgun for home use. Yet Wigand’s paranoia overtakes him as the family become continually harassed by shady forces hired by the tobacco company as well as the press, resulting in his wife leaving him and taking their daughters with her. Meanwhile, Bergman’s reputation is tied up with his righteous machismo — an early scene where the producer meets covertly with Sheikh Fadlallah (Cliff Curtis) to secure an interview for 60 Minutes sees Bergman fearlessly enduring scare tactics in order to do his job. When Brown & Williamson create a smear campaign against Wigand, Bergman is forced to fight hard for his source’s integrity as well as his own, going so far as to make clandestine moves through the press to rescue Wigand’s reputation. Bergman, who prides his veracity, is the most appalled at CBS’s willingness to cave to corporate pressure, and Mann paints him as the last honest man standing in an institution that now holds double talk and greed above delivering the truth to the masses. The Insider is an operatic tale of two men who are simultaneously heroes and tragic figures, the apparent last examples of a breed of man willing to stand up for what they believe is right.
Mann wasn’t done making biopics of men unafraid to stand for something, as his next film, Ali (2001), chronicles the most public years in the life of boxer Muhammad Ali, the athlete’s commitment to his beliefs arguably his greatest show of strength. Ali (Will Smith) may be the most physically macho character in Mann’s filmography by virtue of his pugilism, and certainly Ali’s boisterous, arrogant, shit-stirring persona backs up his athletic prowess. The fact that none of Mann’s men are saints makes the real-life exploits of Ali an easier fit within the director’s filmography, as the boxer’s womanizing is dealt with honestly, the character’s reasons for cheating eliciting sympathy (he claims that it’s due to him loving women too much) yet not begging for such. Like all Mann protagonists, Ali is portrayed as a singular man different from others, one who can meet his enemies like Joe Frazier (James Toney) with respect and turn agitators in the press like Howard Cosell (Jon Voight) into friends.
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The film shows that Ali’s most singular quality is his ability to bear the weight of becoming a worldwide icon, his fame and convictions causing him to transcend into a symbol. When the movie begins in 1964, Ali is already a tangential political figure, his friendship with Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles) well known. That relationship leads to his official induction into the Nation of Islam, with the boxer changing his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. The brouhaha around that name change in the press is the first major instance of Ali fighting for the right to be who he is, and it’s perhaps being wounded over that controversy that causes him to be influenced to drop Malcolm X as a friend shortly before the latter’s assassination. From then on (at least within the time period of the film), Ali never budges on his beliefs, sacrificing the prime years of his boxing career by refusing to be drafted into the Vietnam War and continuing to be outspoken in the press against war and racism. By the time the movie concludes in Zaire with the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” bout, Ali sees his image used as inspiration for the local Africans in a variety of ways, his reputation elevated to symbolic status, painting him literally as against every type of hardship or oppression. These aspects make Ali into a pseudo-mythic figure, allowing his boxing matches to mean more than just feats of stamina and strength. Mann keeps both images of Ali alive, the man and the myth mixed into one.
In Collateral (2004), Vincent (Tom Cruise) is the opposite of a myth: he’s a man who has constructed himself to become a cypher. He exclusively takes public transportation, he slinks through a crowd neither too fast nor too slow and his clothing is deliberately anonymous and drab: grey suit and tie, white shirt, etc. Mann clues the audience in to Vincent’s sociopathy via his silver fox hair and stubble — the look subtly recalls William Petersen in Manhunter, another professional who must live and work on the dark side. Vincent, an assassin working for a crime cartel, hires a cab to take him to his several targets. Both Vincent and the cab’s driver, a meek longtime cabbie named Max (Jamie Foxx), are inadvertently transformed over the movie’s one long night. At first, Mann seems to be playing with the concept of the Everyman — Vincent, in his anonymity, is more like an Anyman, someone who lacks identity along with a soul (or so it seems, as the assassin slowly reveals a wounded past to Max at certain intervals). Max, being the more traditional Everyman, moves from frightened and nervous to decisive and heroic, his contrast with Vincent making this transformation that much more plausible.
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Yet Mann’s commentary on masculinity within Collateral is much more cleverly satiric, signaled by his hiring of Cruise to play Vincent. The assassin isn’t just a typical Mann professional, his craft and his ethics rigidly set in stone. Vincent also doubles as a hyper-macho life coach for Max, taking the malleable cabbie under his wing and lecturing him on everything from nihilistic philosophy to how to treat his mother to dating advice. With Cruise in the part, Mann uses one of the most obvious examples of American hyper-masculinity, the actor’s intensity and determination lending Vincent that much more persuasive credibility (Vincent feels cut from the same cloth as another fraud played by Cruise, Frank T.J. Mackey in 1999’s Magnolia). The joke is that Vincent’s philosophy is a bankrupt one, his ethos the very thing that makes him a prisoner of his own reputation — his character is so anonymous that he’s able to make Max impersonate him in front of his employers, which Foxx’s character does successfully thanks to Vincent being so easy to imitate. The “ships passing in the night” conceit of Collateral applies to Vincent and Max’s essentially switching of places — the naturally anonymous and indecisive Max rejects the assassin’s “teachings” and saves both himself as well as the final target, Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith), while Cruise’s character loses more and more control, his underestimating of Max causing him to make mistakes and eventually turn into an unknown man left to die on a subway train, a hypothetical fate he ruminates on early in the film. Both men are challenged, and the one who subscribes to a more traditional, selfish idea of masculinity fails while the one who chooses to stand for something other than just himself succeeds. However, just like Jeffrey Wigand and Muhammad Ali, Max’s victory does not come without cost, and it’s this nuanced idea of triumph Mann would continue to explore in his next few films that followed.
To be continued…
Bill Bria (@billbria) is a writer, actor, songwriter and comedian. ‘Sam & Bill Are Huge,’ his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill‘s acting credits include an episode of HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and a featured parts in Netflix’s ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and CBS’ ‘Instinct.’ His film writing can also be seen at Crooked Marquee as well as his own website. Bill lives in New York City.