In another life, the brief one in the 1980s that constituted my Hollywood career, I met Michael Mann. An independent producer was considering me to write a Wall Street-type movie and approached Mann to direct. Along with an associate producer or two, we convened at Mann’s office on the Universal lot where the director was seated at the center of a horseshoe-shaped table, a power arrangement if there ever was one, the rest of us assembled around him. Mann expounded on film, politics, finance, life, literature, and the flaws of our project. For a guy who started out writing the early ’70s cop show Starsky and Hutch and whose biggest triumph was the infinitely more stylish but still-less-than-Dostoyevskian Miami Vice, Mann was the picture of egomania, particularly since he didn’t say anything blindingly brilliant. In my dismay I would have resisted mightily the proposition that he was to become the greatest American director of the ’90s.
The quietly delirious Last of the Mohicans (1992), epically noir Heat (1995), and, well, Dostoyevskian The Insider (1999) cannot be denied, however, nor can the singular vision that drove them. If The Insider, with its seven Oscar nominations, is the least of them, that’s only because it provokes stunned respect instead of the exhilaration with which one watches the other two. An English major who transplanted from Chicago to London as a protégé of Ridley Scott, Mann makes films of ambition and scope, and what looked and sounded like bombast behind that preposterous power table turned out to be Windy City bravura after all. No other contemporary American director has so successfully fused an aesthete’s lyricism with a moralist’s hard-boiled meditation on the meaning of honor in a world that views such a thing as quaint. The most atypical of Mann’s movies, Mohicans, and the most quintessential, Heat, share the same grand hush hurtling toward similar climaxes: a renegade frontiersman and his Indian allies staging a determined do-or-die rescue along the bluffs of the New World to no sound but a Celtic jig, and two professionals on opposite sides of the law drawn into a nocturnal kabuki each hoped to avoid, to no sound but the roar of jetliners descending overhead.
Like all true moralists, Mann finds easy notions of morality suspect, and suspects that the truest honor may finally lie in the unlikeliest places and with the unlikeliest characters. The most moving moment in any Mann film comes at the end of Mohicans, when a British officer who’s given no indication of being anything but a prig and weasel sacrifices himself for the woman he already knows he’s lost. In his two-fisted way Mann is a romantic, if enough of a street tough to keep it a closely guarded secret between him and a gazillion moviegoers. This template of romanticism, lyricism, and honor is found in Mann’s first feature, 1981’s Thief, in which a jewel thief makes a bargain with the Mob against his better instincts, then is double-crossed and sets about making right—on his terms—the consequences of his miscalculation. To save his family he must lose them forever, before he can bring retribution to those who have made their own miscalculation in believing he’s out of their league. As with many portentous debuts there isn’t much original about Thief, the conflict that sweeps up its main character being the stuff of Shane, Point Blank, Get Carter, and The Wild Bunch (one of Mann’s favorite films). Rather, among Thief’s revelations was Mann’s sense of style both sonically and visually, music and cinematography becoming hallmarks of his work. He also proved to have a way with actors who have lined up over the years to work with him, including Thief’s James Caan and later Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Daniel Day-Lewis, Russell Crowe, Will Smith, Tom Cruise, Jon Voight, Val Kilmer, and Jamie Foxx.
You may have noticed that this list is aggressively male. More than a few of these actors and the roles they have played for Mann resemble Mann himself: the flamboyant Pacino, the perfectionist De Niro, the uncompromising Day-Lewis, the principled Crowe. Caan even looks like Mann. Virtually all are rebels, loners. When Caan blows up his house in Thief so that nothing can be taken from him by those threatening to take everything, how many studio office buildings on how many lots was Mann, famously regarded by most studios as a pain in the ass, blowing up in his mind? Given all the testosterone, then, it’s striking that women make Mann’s solitary samurai knowable and elevate his best movies to greatness. Small and ancillary though her part was on the page, Tuesday Weld haunts the memory of Thief years later. Madeleine Stowe in Mohicans is the mirror image of Day-Lewis. Independent and brave, resourceful and resilient, passionate and proud, self-knowing and thus needing to neither dominate nor submit, Stowe was a movie star a grown-up could fall in love with, and one can only regret the score of great parts she subsequently deserved that never presented themselves. The wives, girlfriends, and daughters (Diane Venora, Ashley Judd, Amy Brenneman, Kim Staunton, Natalie Portman) of Heat’s men form a kind of secret movie within the movie. Their stories may be the untidiest thing about the film—once having created them, Mann never pays them the attention they warrant—but they also are what gives the movie its dimension, revealing about the men the doom each carries inside him. In the midst of Heat’s tough-guy drama, most vivid is Pacino discovering the teenage Portman in a bathtub after a suicide attempt and the way it shocks him into humanity, however briefly. Realizing that Pacino’s character actually is capable of an inner life outside his job, we find him both more heroic and more tragic.
Until the new Public Enemies, Mann had been spinning his wheels since the ’90s, adding finishing touches to the body of work rather than expanding on it. He has directed movies that were beneath him (the film version of Miami Vice, less substantial than even the series) and worthy of him if not altogether successful (Ali), and he has produced movies that made sense (Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator) and that might have made sense once but the rationale for which evaporated by the time they reached the screen (last year’s Hancock). The closest he’s come to his best work is 2004’s Collateral, which takes place in the L.A. that sinks into nihilistic darkness after Heat has ended, with one of those inspired performances Tom Cruise comes up with whenever he plays a monster.
The most conspicuous thing about Public Enemies is the extent to which Mann has become so accomplished a director that the writer he originally was has gotten steamrolled. There’s Mann the filmmaker at the center of that horseshoe table browbeating Mann the pathetic scribe on the perimeter. The story of Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger and the FBI agent obsessed with running him down, Public Enemies is loaded with talent, from actors Johnny Depp and Christian Bale to photographer Dante Spinotti, whose gorgeous camera work must be considered the prohibitive front-runner to win an Academy Award. Not until halfway through do we realize it’s the writing that’s flat, Dillinger often reduced to existential live-for-today-and-forget-tomorrow aphorisms that are variations on early Brando dialogue. “Where are you going?” asks hatcheck girl Marion Cotillard, and Depp answers, “Anywhere I want,” in one of the few trite moments of his career. The consuming romance between Depp and Cotillard at the center of Public Enemies is cookie-cutter compared to Day-Lewis and Stowe’s in Mohicans, and the jailhouse face-off between Depp and Bale doesn’t have the crackle of the coffee-shop scene between Heat’s two grizzled veterans, because the screenplay hasn’t given them lives to talk about. Unlike Pacino’s detective, Bale’s Melvin Purvis has nothing to forsake in order to pursue his obsession.
Since Thief, Mann and his movies have aspired to the mythic, never more so than in Public Enemies. Depp’s gentleman holdup man strikes a chord in yet another age when banks are glorified robber barons, sucking up billions in government bailouts while people’s lives are engulfed by credit card debt, collapsing mortgages, rejected car loans, dashed college dreams. It’s also true that in Mann’s new movie, aspiration has met with a creative control so unforgiving that the result is an airtight austerity; the filmmaker has become a prisoner of his own unyielding discipline. His refusal to go for a cheap laugh or emotion is commendable but undercuts even the mythmaking. When Dillinger, in the middle of a bank job, tells a customer to keep his money because he wants only the bank’s, a flourish that lies at the heart of Dillinger’s populist appeal, it happens so quickly—as if Mann is terrified something might smack of the sentimental—that the impact is lost. With the film’s last line we realize how much we’ve missed the pulp, and there are a couple of episodes from Dillinger’s life so irresistible that the fact Mann resisted them says everything: a stint, for instance, in which Dillinger posed as a bank alarm salesman, traveling from vault to vault across the Midwest casing the possibilities; or another when his gang passed itself off as a movie crew filming a heist that it was committing. Public Enemies’ most affecting passage comes near the end, when imagination finally takes flight into the rarefied atmosphere of the irrational. One afternoon Dillinger brazenly strolls through the station house of the same Chicago police dedicated to apprehending him, surveying his life—and fate—in the mug shots of his fallen friends and accomplices that paper the walls. Dillinger’s audacity and self-destruction come together in a flash of understanding he can’t express. The cops gather around the radio listening to a ball game—“What’s the score?” Dillinger asks nonchalantly—and the scene has the feel of a fatal reverie.
Public Enemies reminds one of the Mann-produced The Aviator, the flashy and often dazzling 2004 biopic starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes (at one point DiCaprio was set to play Dillinger). As with The Aviator, once you can accept that the pleasures of Public Enemies are less to be felt than admired, you can give yourself over to some of the most virtuosic filmmaking Mann has done, notably a nighttime shoot-out that, in contrast with De Niro and Pacino’s ballet in Heat, is all chaos and carnage, tommy-gun bursts like exploding fireflies. It was filmed at the Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin, where a legendary clash took place between the FBI and the joined forces of Dillinger and the country’s next-most-wanted crook, Baby Face Nelson. As much as Dillinger was a bandit for the 19th century, Nelson was a psychopath for the 20th, a century that overwhelms Dillinger in the form of a spiffy new FBI as well as a state-of-the-art crime syndicate not unlike the one Caan battled three decades ago in Thief. Public Enemies suggests Nelson is more of a kindred spirit with the bureau’s Mussolini-loving J. Edgar Hoover (played with frightening intensity by Billy Crudup), both outlaw and enforcer stomping through the century’s jungle.
Formed reluctantly, Dillinger’s partnership with Nelson is the beginning of the end, and he knows it. Like all Mann’s heroes, Dillinger is one more loner with a code that’s been breached and has to be redeemed. It’s tempting to wonder if Michael Mann is a 20th-century filmmaker out of place in the 21st, but that’s the kind of cheap metaphor Mann has become so ambivalent about. While Public Enemies falls short of Mann’s classic work, no one disputed the director’s introduction as one of cinema’s “modern masters” at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June; even on a particularly hyped night in a hyped town, the claim stuck. I suspect the guy at the center of the horseshoe 20 years ago wouldn’t be surprised, and by now there’s no need to advise anyone on the other side of the table to pay closer attention than I did.
Photograph courtesy flickr/ riccardodivirgilio