Michael Mann is one of the quintessential postmodern director, although he is sometimes unflattering to the whole notion of the postmodern. Maligned for being too entranced with style, Mann is an artist whose sense of the world is manifest precisely in the realization of style. While film-makers such as Tarantino and Lynch focus on the destruction of linear narrative and incessant allusions, Mann's work looks rather straightforward and generic (to the point that many accuse him of merely puffing up old formulas), with few references either to other works or to the cinematic apparatus itself.
Mann's Male Subject
He seems very much concerned with the fading of the male subject in the climate of post-industrial society, as this subject is swallowed up by a sense of hyper-alienation that Mann captures with an eye peculiar to him, a visual style that owes more to the painting architecture of post-modernity than to cinema. His concern for the occult of the male, overwhelmed by a culture showing the effects of a corporatized 'world system' has little in common with "Angry White Male" films of the 70s to 90s.
Mann's nostalgic sense of the overshadow of the male subject is mitigated to a great extent by his questioning of the demarcation of the 'Self' and 'Other' (in, for example, the feeling of dissolution at the end of 'Heat' ; and the dismissal of the all-encompassing corporate world and their compromised democratic institutions at the end of 'The Insider'). The images appearing in 'Heat' and 'Insider,' show the steady sealing-off of nature, as if to suggest the increased suffocation of humanity.
Mann's Crime Saga
Heat, based on the teleplay 'L.A. Take-down' was Mann's most ambitious film. The film's on-screen reunion of 'rival' superstars Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, who had not worked together since Godfather II, might be considered rather overstated. However, Mann uses the occasion well. These rather, similar 'Method-actors' portray characters who continue Mann's notion of the thin line between self and other.
Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) is a cop in relentless pursuit of gang leader Neil McCauley (De Niro). Both men lead troubled lives in a post-modern landscape saturated with CNN, cybernetic technologies, broken families, even child neglect and murder. Both men are self-absorbed pragmatists who neglect or abuse their mates, and it is this factor that Mann uses to complicate our regard for his otherwise elegiac portrait of the demise of the male group. Indeed, Heat provides Mann's most sustained preoccupation with the fading centrality of the male, conveyed with the usual melancholy.
When Neil's gang recognizes that the police are on to their plans, they decide to proceed anyway, an affirmation of the male self basic to a director like Peckinpah (Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs). The gang's 'Last Stand' after the botched bank robbery also harks back to the western. The idea of a dedicated cop pursuing his doppelganger has deep roots in crime fiction , but here the theme looks especially hyperbolic when we observe Vincent's home life. Again, the basic situation looks highly generic - the overly dedicated cop and his neglected wife - until Mann uses it for something of a tirade about the effects of a (feminized) postmodern condition on the male.
Vincent's wife, Justine, tells him that although she is 'stoned on grass and Prozac', she has more humanity than her husband, with whom she needs to 'get closure' by her affair. Vincent's explodes, complaining to Justine's boyfriend Ralph about the 'dead-tech bullshit postmodern' house (Justine's from her last divorce) he has been forced to live in. After his brief reunion with Justine later, following her daughter's near suicide, Justine sets him free, and Vincent literally floats blithely (the soundtrack suddenly silent to emphasize the privileged moment) back to battle. The prolonged track down and final shoot-out between Vincent and Neil, underscores this rather obsessive elegy for the male and the forms of art that have portrayed his travails.
Evil In The Postmodern Corporatized World
The Insider is Mann's most accomplished work to date, embodying fully the elegiac, melancholy sensibility informing all of his work, and offering a compelling example of political postmodernism. The film's political aspect derives to some extent from the one-man-against-the-system paranoid populism revived in the 1990s primarily by Oliver Stone. Stone's work is a fairly radical dissent aimed at the Cold War military-industrial state. While, Mann's anxieties are centered on the very specific power of contemporary global corporatism.
The film is based on the very contemporary real-life story of Jeffrey Wigand, a senior biochemist for Brown and Williamson, one of the biggest of the Big Tobacco corporate conglomerates. In 1995, a disgruntled, recently fired, Wigand (Russell Crowe) gave information to the CBS news magazine 60 minutes about the company's attempts to make addicts of consumers, in the process poisoning them. CBS convinced 60 minutes to shelve the story due basically to the company's dense entanglements with Big Tobacco. The programme's producer, Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), goes to bat for Wigand, pitting sectors of the media and corporate capital against each other until the show is finally aired.
More than in Mann's previous work, the male protagonist is made irrelevant by the dizzying effect of the postmodern transnational corporate state. Bergman wanders nearly blind through the events of the story, a motif prefigured in the Middle East establishing sequence where Bergman is brought blindfolded to Hezbollah headquarters in Lebanon to arrange an interview. As Bergman enters Wigand's (Crowe) life, he seems a mere accessory appendage to an array of video monitors, cell phones, fax machines, computers and other gadgets that functions as metaphors for the corporate arena.
The impulse in this project flows from the banality of evil in the postmodern, corporatized world, with its feature once benign, impervious, and incomprehensible. Although the world eventually hears Wigand's 60 minute story, saving him from total marginalization, the film is by no mean a vindication of the media and other institutions with which they are interlocked. When the show finally airs, we note that spectators in airports and bars are barely conscious of its import; after a bitter interchange at CBS, Bergman leaves the building, the movement of the scene shifting to slow motion - as it did when Wigand was fired.
Mann suggests that the public is inured to the mediascape, and the most good-hearted players within the corporate/media state are fairly insignificant against current capitalist assumptions. Mann cannot seem to posit a world outside of patriarchy, even in its decayed, postmodern movement. Yet this decay seems fairly absolute, making Mann's vision hark back to an earlier (post-Watergate) cinema that encouraged the critical faculties of the audience, and looked beneath the facade of the existing order things.
Heat - Review
The Insider - Review