Trevor Hogg profiles the career of director Michael Mann in the second of a two-part feature… read the first part of the article here.
With the arrival of the 1990s, Michael Mann experienced a creative renaissance that would place him on the A-List of Hollywood directors. In 1990 he produced the Emmy winning docudrama Drug Wars: The Camarena Story which was inspired by the life of assassinated undercover DEA agent, Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, who exposed a major marijuana operation in Guadalajara, Mexico; his murder sparked an investigation into corruption within the Mexican government. Two years later a less acclaimed sequel Drug Wars: The Cocaine Cartel was released.
For his next theatrical project Mann collaborated with an actor more infamous than himself for extensive research methods – Daniel Day-Lewis. Released in 1992, The Last of the Mohicans was a period action-adventure tonic that delighted film critics and movie audiences alike. To prepare for his leading role Day-Lewis lived in the wilderness where he hunted and fished for several months before shooting commenced on the eighth feature film adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s novel. Interestingly, Michael Mann never read the book; instead he used the screenplay of the 1936 version as his source material.
Moving from the colonial North America of 1757 to a more contemporary setting resulted in the 1995 urban epic Heat. Filmed in sixty-five locations around Los Angeles, there was huge publicity generated when legendary actors Al Pacino and Robert De Niro were cast as the movie’s central adversaries Det. Vincent Hanna and professional robber Neil McCauley. The story was inspired by an actual confrontation between retired Chicago cop Chuck Adamson (a technical consultant for Mann since Thief) and the real McCauley who was killed during a grocery store heist. Rivaling the diner scene where Pacino and De Niro share the big screen for the first time is the riveting bank robbery shootout that violently spills out onto the city streets.
Despite the praise for Heat, it was not until 1999 that Michael Mann had his Academy Awards coming-out party with The Insider. Nominated for seven Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actor (Russell Crowe) the film retold a notorious CBS affair; a subject of a corporate takeover and a major lawsuit launched by tobacco manufacturer Brown & Williamson, the television network scuttled an exclusive 60 Minutes investigative report. The piece detailed how B & W was manipulating ingredients to improve upon the addictive quality of cigarettes. Russell Crowe produced his finest performance as the seriously flawed whistleblower, Jeffrey Wigand, who along with crusading segment producer Lowell Bergman (an equally engaging Al Pacino) helped to galvanize Americans against the unethical business practices of Big Tobacco.
Next on Michael Mann’s directorial agenda was the 2001 biopic entitled Ali. Beginning with the legendary athlete’s defeat of Sonny Liston in 1964 and concluding with his 1974 “Rumble in Jungle” comeback against George Foreman, the story oddly enough lacked the cocky playful spirit which made Ali such a compelling individual. For his effort in portraying the charismatic and candid heavyweight boxing icon, Will Smith was rewarded with an Oscar nomination along with his costar Jon Voight.
To improve upon the depth and detail of the nighttime images for his 2004 thriller Collateral, Mann shot the exterior footage with high definition digital cameras giving the movie a gritty documentary feel. Initially it was jarring to see the usually glamorous Tom Cruise playing a grey haired assassin; however, the shock quickly disappears as he effortlessly dissolves into his psychotically-charming character. The pivotal role was given to Jamie Foxx who played the unfortunate cabbie. The transformation from being the victim to the victor was so believable that the performance provided Foxx with one of his two Oscar nominations that year.
In 2006, Michael Mann’s television and film careers collided resulting in a theatrical adaptation of Miami Vice. The Chicagoan continued his extensive use of the H.D. technology when capturing his male leads’, Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx, take on the T.V. roles originated by Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas. During what would become a 105 day shoot, Farrell and Foxx were regularly put through grueling preproduction training exercises which included having them fire live ammunition on the various SWAT ranges in Miami. In spite of all the preparations to ensure the action sequences would appear realistic and authentic, the movie came nowhere close to usurping its small screen predecessor.
After serving as a producer for The Kingdom (2007) and Hancock (2008), both directed by Peter Berg, Mann returned to the cinematic spotlight in 2009 with a feature film touted to be the frontrunner for Best Picture at the next Academy Awards. Public Enemies has acting chameleon and virtuoso Johnny Depp don the gangster garb of notorious bank robber John Dillinger. The true tale of the Depression era outlaw and his gang who sparked the formation of the F.B.I. holds a special historical significance for Mann as he and his wife used to watch art house films in theatre where the proficient and larger-than-life criminal was eventually gunned down by government authorities.
“Dillinger at one point was the second most popular man in America after President Roosevelt. And he was a national hero for a good reason. He was robbing the very institutions, the banks, which had afflicted the people for four years,” answered the filmmaker when asked to explain John Dillinger’s enduring public appeal.
As for how he envisioned cinematically embodying the man and the legend, Mann stated: “The movie I saw in my head, the movie I wanted to make, had to do with this kinda wild guy who wants everything, and he wants it now, with this passion. And he doesn’t just get released from prison – he explodes out of the landscape, wanting everything he hasn’t had for 10 years with all the power and force of his personality and his skill sets.”
There is no doubt, whether with a blast of machine gunfire or a quiet conversation between adversaries, that the Chicago-born filmmaker’s own set of storytelling skills will be enthralling movie audiences and critics for years to come.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.
A Michael Mann Retrospective
Read Trevor’s Michael Mann reviews at Wildsound.
The Museum of the Moving Image also has a series of video essays on Michael Mann’s films, which you can view here.