The True Man’s World: The Men of Michael Mann

Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx in Miami Vice

Has a director ever had a more apt name than Michael Mann? Throughout his career he’s always made films about capital-M Men, and not in the casually chauvinist way of most Hollywood fare that takes maleness as a default setting for protagonists. His films are all about men, and what it means to be masculine. I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that this sounds like the last thing you’d want to watch. Don’t we have enough art about manliness? But incredibly, and against all odds, all his films are also immensely compelling and thoughtful. Watching a Mann film makes you forget that you’ve been force-fed stories about men for your entire life.

Mann’s masculinity is unusual in a number of ways, but they all come back to interiority. Most stories about men are about being assailed from the outside, struggling against exterior foes. We are rarely allowed emotional access to these characters, because these works associate having interior lives with femininity. Men act, women react. To react is to feel, and to feel is to be feminine. Mann’s films have no such fear of emotion. One of his earliest films, Manhunter, is premised on a protagonist who has a preternatural ability to empathize. Will Graham, played by William Petersen, is a retired FBI criminal profiler who is brought back into the fold to track a serial killer called the Tooth Fairy. Graham’s capacity to get inside the heads of murderers made him good at his job, but the work left him emotionally scarred. The film never suggests that he is less of a man for his emotional gifts or the resultant trauma. He is a hero precisely because he can feel, just as the Tooth Fairy is a villain because he cannot. Will Graham became a template for Mann protagonists going forward. These men tend to be the best at their particular job, yet so consumed by it as to suffer emotional trauma.

William Petersen in Manhunter

The empathy of Mann’s protagonists shows up in his camera, too. All his films show a respect for dead characters, lingering with them much longer than other filmmakers might. He has a deep concern for the humanity of everyone on screen. No one is there just to die for the audience’s amusement, they’re all people with lives and souls. For comparison, look at a film like Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge. I mean, don’t look at it, don’t watch that film. Just take my word for it. The characters in Hacksaw Ridge exist only to die, and to die epically and brutally. They are mannequins for carnage and gore. Gibson doesn’t see them as people, he sees them as props. Mann is often considered a macho filmmaker, but his visual compassion sets him apart from the Gibsons of the world.

At the end of Manhunter, Graham collapses into his wife’s arms after his harrowing ordeal. “Most of them made it,” he says, tears in his eyes. There is no celebration of his victory, just a bittersweet acknowledgement that he couldn’t save everyone. Mann refuses to end the film on a fist-pumping heroic note. After all that brutal violence, how could there be any true triumph?

There is little glory in success for Mann’s men, and even less reward. At the end of The Insider, after his expose on the tobacco industry is finally allowed to be aired, 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) doesn’t celebrate. He quits. He may have gotten what he wanted, but the road he took to get there has ruined his reputation. How, he asks, could any whistleblower trust him with their story after such an ordeal? Meanwhile, whistleblower Jeffery Wigand (Russell Crowe) doesn’t happily reunite with his wife and children. His life was blown apart, and it can’t be put back together by the end. Heat and Miami Vice don’t end with their police protagonists being awarded medals for heroism. Like Manhunter, both conclude on melancholy notes of appreciation for the simple fact of their survival and mourning for those who didn’t make it.

Al Pacino in Heat

The interiority of Mann’s protagonists may be unusual, but their trauma makes them somewhat revolutionary. Mann came out of the gate with a lead character whose masculine posturing masked deep-seated emotional scars. His first film, Thief, is about a safecracker named Frank (James Caan). In the film’s central scene, Frank and his girlfriend Jessie (Tuesday Weld) have a late-night meal at a diner. Jessie talks about how her ex-boyfriend got her involved in the drug trade and abandoned her in Columbia after the relationship ended. She talks around it but clearly intimates that she was raped during this period of time. “Things did happen,” she said. (There’s an article to be written about how rape is inappropriately used as a blunt screenwriting tool to characterize women, but it isn’t this one.) Any other film would have used this as a moment to define Frank in opposition to Jessie’s ex—he would have been drawn as a patriarchal defender of her honor. A “real man” is a shield for women.

This is when Thief does something extraordinary. In response to her story, Frank relates his own of being raped while in prison. He uses the same words as she does to describe the same experience. “They jumped all over me, and did a lot of things,” he says. It’s the last thing you expect to hear from a character like Frank, a macho tough guy who doesn’t take shit from anyone. Perhaps, Thief posits, it’s exactly what you should have expected. Frank’s toughness isn’t compromised by his past, it’s informed by it. His steely bravado is a defense mechanism. For Frank and for Mann, masculinity is not a natural state of being but a learned behavior with a specific purpose. Frank acts the way he does to protect himself from emotional harm. “I am Joe-the-boss-of-my-own-body,” he asserts, because feels he has to assert it.

Tuesday Weld and James Caan in Thief

This is perhaps the single most consistent detail in Mann’s filmography. Almost all of his protagonists put on masks to shield themselves. We see this best in his theatrical reboot of Miami Vice, where Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) take on invented identities as part of their work. In Miami Vice, identity never comes from within. It’s always applied from the outside, an exterior shell protecting the unseen “true self.”

We know about Crockett and Tubbs’ real selves beyond their love for and dedication to each other. I wouldn’t say that any of Mann’s films are particularly homoerotic, but he is unafraid of his work being seen as such. From Miami Vice to Heat to The Insider to Public Enemies to Blackhat, we see stories of men entangled in complex and emotionally fraught relationships. Mann’s work examines male bonding both inside and outside the context of violence and death, a theme to which it is so often restricted. Their bonds are deeply personal, no superficial brotherly camaraderie. In Mann’s work we see love, and affection, and care for one another. The final shot of Miami Vice is quietly profound. We watch from a distance as Crockett enters the hospital where Tubbs is waiting with his girlfriend. Originally, the script ended with Crockett saying a final goodbye to Isabella. He wakes up, and she’s gone, and he has nobody. Instead the film leaves us with a reminder that he does have somebody: His partner. Miami Vice ends with Crockett committing his life to Tubbs, a gesture of undeniable love.

Chris Hemsworth in Blackhat

The fragility of Mann’s men extends to their physical bodies. Men in action movies rarely find themselves in a state between healthy and dead. Injuries tend to be superficial, blood treated as body paint. Mann’s protagonists are all glass cannons. Their moments of heroism come at a physical cost. One of my favorite examples comes at the end of Blackhat, his most recent film. In preparation for his final showdown with the villain, Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) doesn’t charge in with an invisible main character shield. He duct tapes phonebooks to his body as rudimentary protection. He may have the body of the guy who plays Thor, but in a Mann movie that’s not sufficient protection. Cut Mann’s men and they will bleed, but more than that they’ll hurt.

I’d be the first person to argue that we don’t need more art about masculinity. But Michael Mann movies show us the possibility space of the topic better than any other filmmaker. His men are tough, dependable, good at what they do. They’re also sensitive, traumatized, capable of showing profound love for each other. His men are not Hollywood men, his masculinity is not what men are so desperately told they should emulate. If only there were more artists willing to delve into what masculinity really means to the people who are pressured to perform it. Because masculinity is a performance, after all, and one that Mann is perceptive enough to see right through.