“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” — Oscar Wilde
Men have a particular affinity for deception. While other gender identities can certainly be duplicitous, men tend to be the most likely to lie for reasons of achieving their own personal goals. One could say that men have built entire organizations that make frequent use of deception — the intelligence gathering branches of government, for example. Lies are often a way of life for those making their living on either side of the law, whether someone is a cop working undercover, a career criminal or a hacker hiding within the digital world. Yet an interesting phenomenon that occurs with men who have integrity and honor is that the more entrenched they become inside a faux persona, the more of their actual selves emerge. The irony regarding men and lying is that most men aren’t completely successful at it, their truth too strong to be entirely sublimated.
As filmmaker Michael Mann approached the fourth decade of his career in the mid-2000s, he found himself not only continuing to explore his by now well established interests but literally revisiting his past. Apparently, Mann had originally wished to develop Miami Vice as a film, but circumstances turned it into a TV series instead. Despite that series’ huge success, it was an itch Mann had yet to scratch, and given his newfound love of shooting with HD cameras, the director had a new visual approach to the material. 2006’s Miami Vice has a plot that feels like it could be an average episode of the show: Miami Dade PD officers Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) and Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) are working a minor prostitution bust when an old informant of theirs drags them into a larger case involving a major drug dealer, Montoya (Luis Tosar), his middleman José Yero (John Ortiz) and his mistress/financial adviser Isabella (Gong Li). Crockett and Tubbs attempt to assemble a full rundown of Montoya’s operation, getting close enough on the inside with their cover identities that they believe that have a genuine shot at busting both the criminal and all within his empire.
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Yet what separates Miami Vice from its television predecessor is the way Mann’s visual approach and style supports this story and what it has to say about these men, rather than imposing anything for nostalgia’s sake. Gone are the pastels and copious pop music needle drops that saturated the series — while Crockett and Tubbs still dress expensively, drive flashy cars and are surrounded by source music, Mann’s gritty HD camerawork emphasizes the emotional coldness at the center of their lives. The film never lets the audience forget that Crockett and Tubbs are in danger every moment, the only thing between them and a bullet being the lie they’ve constructed. Mann, so intrigued by the “elevated experience” (a term he coined) of men who deal with life and death on a daily basis, uses Crockett and Tubbs to explore how living an undercover life can cause someone to push their luck. Isabella even invokes one of Mann’s beloved adages, “time is luck,” inferring that everything has an expiration date. Crockett learns that lesson the hardest, using his position undercover to strike up a relationship with Isabella that’s ostensibly to pump her for information, but he ends up falling deeply in love with her, completely complicating his job and his identity. Meanwhile, Tubbs and his fellow detective Trudy (Naomie Harris) are in a committed relationship together, and constantly reassure each other about the risks and dangers of the jobs they do. Yet when Trudy is kidnapped by a white power gang working for Yero, they find themselves less emotionally prepared than they’d thought. Miami Vice looks at how men going undercover only serves to reveal more of themselves, their personalities and emotions becoming dialed up to the point where it can expose them in more ways than one.
Mann’s next film, Public Enemies (2009), sees its two male protagonists suffer for the completely opposite reason, with both bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and FBI Special Agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) struggling to reconcile their desires and principals. The film, similar to Ali (2001), follows the events of just two years in the lives of these men and those surrounding them, from Dillinger’s 1933 prison break of his men in Indiana to Purvis’ assignment to pursue Dillinger ordered by J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) to Dillinger’s eventual assassination by Agent Charles Winstead (Stephen Lang) outside Chicago’s Biograph movie theatre in 1934. Along the way, Dillinger meets the love of his life, the half-French and half-Menominee Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), while Purvis becomes steadily disillusioned with the FBI’s increasingly fascist and brutal tactics. Public Enemies’ chronicling of two equally competent men on either side of the law is, by this point in his career, a Mann staple — in this way, the film feels like a sequel (or better yet, given the time period, a prequel) to Heat (1995). Just as Purvis and Dillinger are the movie’s equivalent to Heat’s Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley, Dillinger and Frechette go through the same whirlwind romance as Frank and Jessie in Thief (1981), with Dillinger declaring that Billie is his girl in much the same fashion Frank annexes Jessie.
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Public Enemies may be the most telling look at Mann’s preferred idea of masculinity given the added frisson of its historical context. Unlike the men of Thief, Manhunter (1986), Heat and Miami Vice, Dillinger and Purvis were real people. Mann’s meticulous research suffuses each film he makes, and Public Enemies is no exception, as Mann shot the film primarily at the real locations where the historical events took place, going so far as to have Bale interview people who knew Purvis personally and Depp trying on the real Dillinger’s pants. This lends the Mann-isms of the movie’s Dillinger and Purvis more weight, with the filmmaker extrapolating from their real-life behaviors as opposed to coming up with pure fiction. As with most of Mann’s men, Dillinger and Purvis are simultaneously ideals and cautionary tales. Both men have innate senses of honor and integrity, seen in how Dillinger never steals people’s personal money and is exceedingly kind to his hostages, while Purvis refuses to let Billie be beaten during her interrogation. Both end up compromising their principals to survive, as Dillinger starts to take down scores with the psychopath Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) while Purvis looks the other way during a suspect’s torture. This multifaceted approach to the characters makes the film’s inevitable ending more nuanced, as Dillinger’s killing is both tragic and a triumph of mythic reputation while Purvis’ victory is complete yet hollow. In a way, both men end up lying not to others but to themselves, with Dillinger becoming convinced he’s invincible and Purvis believing the ends justify the means, and it’s for that reason why these men suffer. Winstead, who is as solid as a rock for the entire film, never compromises himself, and that’s why he’s the figurative last man standing.
At first glance, Mann’s final film to date, Blackhat (2015) appears to leave the world of men behind, its premise revolving around the world of cybercrime. In fact, its chief villain, the hacker Sadak (Yorick van Wageningen) isn’t seen until the final third of the movie, not because Mann is playing a whodunit, but because Sadak’s actions behind a keyboard are intended to speak for him until his physical appearance. He’s a “blackhat,” a hacker who uses not only computer programs and other cyberspace accoutrements as firewalls but people, too, using the mercenary Elias Kassar (Ritchie Coster) to do the bulk of any dirty work that can’t be done electronically. Mann is so eager to show how alien the world of cybercrime is that he presents it as if it were outer space — it’s no coincidence that the film has sequences that evoke 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Typically, Mann had shot his prior few features primarily on HD with a smattering of 35mm film footage, but Blackhat is fully digital, further enhancing its cold computerized aspects.
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Yet Blackhat isn’t a warning about the dangers of dehumanization. Instead, Mann shows how the digital world is merely an extension of the analog human world, with both realms affecting and feeding back into the other. The movie contrasts its scenes of otherworldly codebreaking and electronic manipulation with intensely human surroundings like the streets of Malaysia. Blackhat breaks down the lie of expectation with regards to its characters: Sadak and Kassar aren’t alien-like monsters but rather determined and capable men whose skillsets are unique in their own way. Likewise, Nicolas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), a former blackhat that spent most of his younger years inside the U.S. prison system who’s hired by a joint task force to locate and stop Sadak, isn’t some meek and pasty teen living in a basement but a complicated, handsome man in good shape. Hathaway is yet another Mann ex-con protagonist, a determined, forthright straight shooter who was forced to make his living in a world of deception. Even though these people hide behind computer screens (literally or figuratively), they’re still men, with all their tangible strengths and foibles. If Blackhat is a warning about anything, it’s the way the digital age has allowed people to hide behind masks more effectively.
Yet Mann seems certain that, as with working undercover or believing your own mythic legend, the truth will eventually emerge. Despite their being shot primarily with cool, muted palettes, both Miami Vice and Blackhat are among the most erotic of Mann’s films, the organic masculine lust between couples contrasting with the more dehumanized spaces the characters must navigate. Public Enemies and Vice find Mann returning to the unabashed romance of The Last of the Mohicans (1992) and even The Keep (1983), where two star-crossed lovers find bliss in each other that is too good to last. Throughout his career, Mann has explored nearly every facet of masculinity, portraying it in a way that’s neither hagiographic nor heavily critical. If anything, the totality of Mann’s filmography correctly assesses men as a gender identity in crisis, finding them people who know what they want and have the means to achieve those goals yet get slipped up by their own follies or the darkness inside them. In all of Mann’s protagonists lies both nobility and tragedy, with every man tied to prison in some fashion, in their own mind if not in reality. That prison mentality is what allows them to reach and even exceed their potential through determination as well as blind them to their own flaws and the traps set around them. Masculinity in Mann’s world is its own prison, a conundrum of duality, a question of what someone will stand for and the masks they may wear while striving for an identity. It’s not cop or criminal but both at once, an elevated experience balancing act that is always teetering on the edge. Mann, the filmmaker who, by virtue of his medium, has the ability to manipulate time itself, is constantly refining and studying and searching for ways to encapsulate and communicate this eternal struggle. He knows intrinsically that it’s an impossible task, but he nevertheless still tries since he has the ability and time. After all, time is luck, as Mann and the audience are lucky to have these films for a better understanding of what makes a man.
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.