Michael Mann: Running to Stand Still


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Michael Mann: Running to Stand Still

Was Michael Mann's best film made for television? Adam Nayman says yes...

The release of Michael Mann’s new cyber-thriller Blackhat has occasioned a surge of online writing about the director’s work. As TIFF’s series Neon Nights: The Films of Michael Mann provides an opportunity to revisit the filmmaker’s theatrical features, Adam Nayman examines how the themes and aesthetics of Mann’s films grew out of his work for television. 

While one never wishes to be (merely) contrarian to popular opinion, let it be said here, and probably nowhere else (except here), that Michael Mann’s best film is a television program:
The Jericho Mile, a 1979 telefilm produced for ABC that marked Mann’s transition to the director’s chair after successful stints as a writer for such network television series as Starsky and Hutch and Vega$. Mann’s earlier work on Police Story, a groundbreaking anthology series created by Joseph Wambaugh—the former cop turned successful author who had brought a new, gritty realism to police fiction with such novels as The New Centurions and The Blue Knight—had made the newly minted director into a stickler for authenticity, and he convinced the network to allow him to shoot the film on location at Folsom Prison outside of Sacramento, California—the same infamous facility where Johnny Cash recorded his epochal live album in 1968.

While this decision placed some extraordinary stresses on the production—after gaining permission to bring his crew onto the premises of the maximum-security prison, Mann was warned that shooting would be shut down immediately if a gang or race war broke out—it is also a key source of the movie’s power. The film’s broadly metaphorical tale about convicted murderer Rain Murphy (Peter Strauss), a taciturn “lifer” attempting to outrun (or run out) his demons on the prison yard’s dirt racetrack—and in the process discovering that he is outpacing Olympic-level competitors on the outside—gains credibility and urgency from the palpable authenticity of the location, including the presence of a number of actual inmates as extras and bit players in the film’s ensemble cast.

Even at this early point in Mann’s career, one can see the unique blend of documentary textures (the film’s mostly dialogue-free opening sequence resembles one of Frederick Wiseman’s fly-on-the-wall institutional studies more than a network TV movie) and the more epic—let’s call them “cinematic”—ambitions that would come to define the director’s later work. (Indeed, like Steven Spielberg’s similarly acclaimed made-for-TV movie Duel [1972], The Jericho Mile went on to receive theatrical distribution in Europe.) In the film’s indelible climax, Murphy runs one final, record-breaking lap, stopwatch in hand, while his fellow prisoners—friends and bitter enemies alike—gather to watch. Mann builds the scene patiently and percussively, ping-ponging between slow-motion shots of Murphy’s long strides and the faces of the onlookers, all syncopated to the beat of an instrumental version of The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” (a song whose symbolic connotations are so obvious that it’s a relief the vocal track was lifted out). As Murphy’s piston-like legs churn in time to the driving rock beat, the impression is one of serene velocity, of breakneck speed constrained within the space of the prison yard. When Murphy crosses the finish line of his solo race and flings his timepiece against the wall—where it shatters in slow motion as rapturously as Kubrick’s apeman beating hell out of that tapir skeleton in the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey—it’s exhilarating and devastating: a two-for-one gesture of emancipation and self-destruction to rank with Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan chucking his badge into a tailings pond at the end of Dirty Harry (1971).


This sequence is also strikingly similar to a scene in a much later film by Mann: the extended prologue of Ali (2001), where Will Smith’s Cassius Clay does road work to the strains of Sam Cooke. It’s a testament to both the consistency and the flexibility of Mann’s artistic vision that, with nearly twenty-five years separating them, he could make two similar scenes of men running alone work so powerfully in ways both complementary and profoundly different: one scene climax, the other overture; one man an anonymous prisoner, the other the soon-to-be heavyweight champion of the world; one white, one black, and the latter in some ways no less constrained than the former even as he is “free.

All of which is to say that the visual strategies and themes of Mann’s feature films are not more advanced evolutions of, but inseparable from his work for television—and in a pop-cultural moment where the small screen often outstrips the big one in terms of critical appreciation and commentary, this makes Mann something of a paradigm-shifting figure. While it would be ahistorical to claim that Mann’s return to television in the mid-eighties after his feature-film debut with Thief (1981) was unprecedented—directors had moved back and forth between the two mediums since the advent of television in the 1940s—the extraordinary impact and success of the Mann-produced Miami Vice (1984-89) proved beyond doubt that a television series could meet the gruelling demands of serialized production without sacrificing a clear, focused authorial vision (for a while, anyway).

That question of authorship, however, is a little slippery when it comes to Miami Vice. The legend has it that the show’s official creator Anthony Yerkovich (a writer and producer for NBC’s previous cop-opera hit Hill Street Blues) was inspired by a two-word memo from NBC honcho Brandon Tartikoff that read, simply, “MTV cops”—one of those dizzying mid-’80s “high concepts” that’s easy to brainstorm and harder to actually pull off successfully. (Just ask the creators of the mercifully short-lived cop drama-meets-musical theatre series Cop Rock.) But Mann was already in mind for the nascent series: Yerkovich had previously worked with him on Starsky and Hutch and was a fan of Thief, and so prevailed upon Mann to take his talents to South Beach.

While Mann never directed a single episode of Miami Vice and contributed only one teleplay, his aesthetic control over the series was both undeniable and widely publicized. “With other action-adventure shows, the producer tells me the story line,” said Tartikoff in a 1985 New York Times feature on Miami Vice. “Here, Michael Mann says, ‘no earth tones’.” It would be hard to come up with a better précis of Mann’s mid-eighties sensibility than this affectionately pithy anecdote, which implies an artistic hierarchy in which imagery decisively trumps dramaturgy. While Vice’s conspicuously ethnically diverse cast and ripped-from-the-headlines plots somewhat balanced out the preoccupation with high style—and attested once again to its producer’s perennially stated devotion to realism (however loosely defined)—it was an open question whether the show’s aesthetic was reflecting the decadent corruption of its Sunshine State milieu or trying to reshape it in its own glamorous image. In Mann’s Miami even the title detectives became part of the décor, with the pastel-clad, ebony-and-ivory duo of Don Johnson’s Sonny Crockett and Philip Michael Thomas’ Ricardo Tubbs set against backdrops of swaying palm trees and blood-orange sunsets like men’s-magazine models—the thin blue line as designer accessory.

Miami Vice 

Like Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks—which, along with Robert Altman’s miniseries Tanner ’88, marked a mini-movement that saw major American auteurs shift to the small screen as a venue for experimentation and/or brand extension—Miami Vice burned brightly and flamed out: Mann left at the end of the second season, and the ratings began to decline shortly thereafter. While his actual stint on the show was brief, however—and while the gravitas and relative stylistic restraint of his subsequent big-screen efforts The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Heat (1995) and The Insider (1999) seemed to mark a determined shift away from Vice’s posh, slightly sleazy neo(n)-noir aesthetic—it is evident that there was indeed much of Mann in it. When he returned to his old stomping grounds two decades later with the feature-film version of Vice, he had free rein to push both the brutality and the sensuality of his original vision well past their previous, TV-proscribed limits. (An early, particularly bloody death scene provocatively brings those two elements together in a disturbingly beautiful way: the slow-motion blood and gore is truly hallucinatory.)

Just as Miami Vice 2.0 offers, in the borderline avant-garde presentation of its fundamentally generic crime-story plotting, an exaggerated (if not distorted) version of The Jericho Mile’s dichotomy between movie-of-the-week conventions and ostentatious stylistic flourishes, so Mann’s other early television work presents similarly revelatory connections to his later films. L.A. Takedown (1989) began its life as a screenplay written by Mann before he was hired to make The Jericho Mile; it was filmed a decade later for NBC as a pilot for a cop show set in Los Angeles (a made-to-order West Coast cousin to Miami Vice), but was instead aired as a stand-alone TV movie. Six years later, however, the basic plot of L.A. Takedown—super-cop pursues master criminal against the glittering backdrop of the City of Angels—would be reworked into Heat, which is considered by many Mann-erists to be the director’s masterpiece. Less famously but perhaps more importantly, the short-lived CBS series Robbery Homicide Division (2002-3)—executive-produced by Mann and starring Tom Sizemore, one of Heat’s major supporting players—deployed high-definition digital cameras to capture some of its action, a purposeful technological (and aesthetic) choice that Mann later admitted was a dry run for his full-fledged switch to pixellation in the digitally-shot Collateral. (Mann had first toyed with digital in a theatrical context with some of the boxing scenes in Ali.)

But Mann’s most significant return to the television medium was as director of the pilot episode of Luck, a horse-racing drama created by David Milch (NYPD Blue, Deadwood) that was cancelled by HBO after one season following concerns about the safety of the animals on the set. Luck’s storylines were mostly hard-boiled hokum (and star Dustin Hoffman was woefully miscast as a paroled hood trying to get revenge on the guys who set him up), but Mann’s direction of the first episode was exemplary. By almost religiously insisting on tight close-ups and point-of-view shots in lieu of the usual, playing-safe scene coverage that fills out even vanguard cable efforts like The Sopranos and The Wire, Mann gives the episode a tender sense of interiority that contrasts with its glorious exterior shots (courtesy of cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, who subsequently shot Blackhat for Mann), while the horse-racing sequences are so fleet and forceful that they can’t help but recall the ending of The Jericho Mile and the final run of its own soulful, two-legged thoroughbred. The critical rhetoric that would cast Mann as an artist continually breaking through industrial and artistic barriers can get a little lofty at times, but the kinetic pleasures of The Jericho Mile and Luck show that there’s something beautiful about going around in circles.

 Adam Nayman

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