Michael Mann (Director)

“It bores me to present the events of the story in a realist style. My approach instead is to conceptualize the elements of the plot, taking into consideration the various torments of the human spirit. My aim is to exteriorize the spiritual in the Expressionist manner, and this always leads me to reject realism.”

Could I have worked under a system where there were draconian controls on my creativity, meaning budget, time, script choices, etc.? Definitely not. I would have fared poorly under the old studio system that guys like Howard Hawks did so well in. I cannot just make a film and walk away from it. I need that creative intimacy and, quite frankly, the control to execute my visions, on all my projects.

Born: 5 February 1943, Chicago, Illinois, United States.

Directing career: 1979 –

Movement: N/A.

Traits: One of the few remaining examples of a Hollywood auteur director, Michael Mann’s films can be immediately recognised for their glossy, modernistic style, their melancholy neo-noirish character studies of (always male) protagonists, and for their precise use of music, colour and editing to create mood-driven emotional responses. The typical Mann protagonist is a world-weary loner, extremely skilled at his given profession but facing an existential crisis, struggling for control and discipline over every aspect of what they do (very much like Mann the meticulous film director himself).

Although he is roughly of the same age as the ‘New Hollywood’ generation, he came to feature filmmaking later, after studying film in London (due to this, his aesthetic tendencies may be compared to the stylish gloss of fellow London graduates of the same era like Alan Parker and Ridley Scott) and making documentaries in Europe. Even while making films, he has created influential television series (Miami Vice, Crime Story, etc) which he used almost as a lab for experimentation in technique and style.

Collaborators:  Dante Spinotti (cinematographer), Dov Hoenig (editor), William Goldenberg (editor), Paul Rubell (editor) Eric Roth (screenwriter), Dennis Farina (actor), Al Pacino (actor), Jamie Foxx (actor), John Ortiz (actor).

Films reviewed:

Manhunter (1986)
Blackhat (2014)

Manhunter (1986)
Michael Mann’s Manhunter is a landmark movie for a few reasons. It introduced into the mainstream thriller the FBI techniques of ‘profiling’, creating what would become a sub-genre: the serial killer investigation later mined successfully by filmmakers as diverse as David Fincher (Se7en, Zodiac), Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder) and, obviously, Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs). Speaking of which, Manhunter was also the first cinematic iteration of Thomas Harris’ character of Hannibal Lecktor (or Lecter in later films) who has continued to hold macabre cultural appeal through various other incarnations, sequels, prequels and spinoffs. On a more auteurist note, it marked a return to Hollywood filmmaking for Mann after the fiasco surrounding The Keep (1983) and a brief but incredibly influential venture into television, where his stylistic experimentation had helped define a glossy, moodily evocative style which he’d further polish in Manhunter.

I confess, when I first saw this film as a kid, it was that style which immediately grabbed me. I was haunted by the dead-of-night atmosphere when FBI forensic expert Will Graham (William Petersen) enters the empty suburban home of the family recently massacred by a serial killer, and Dante Spinotti’s camera almost at ground height tracks in onto Graham as if the evil presence of the deeds done in the house remains and is spying on him. As befits a director who was jolted into filmmaking by the works of Murnau and Lang at college (and of course for Mann, The Keep had been an attempt to make a film in that Expressionist tradition), Mann is always using colour, mise-en-scene, and even sometimes architecture, expressionistically to exteriorise the internal moods of the protagonists. Perhaps what stayed with me most of all, though, was the use of music (which always strikes a very strong chord with me in Mann’s films). Mileages will vary but for me the sombre guitar-based sounds of Shriekback or even the almost too on-the-nose anthem of ‘Strong As I Am’ by The Prime Movers do what all the stylistic elements in Mann’s films do so well: they attempt to make us think and feel something more than what is merely shown and signified on screen.

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Revisiting this childhood favourite as an adult, what impresses me even more now is how much all this style is employed in the aid of the film’s central theme, not one concerned with the perverted sociopathic mind of Lecktor, but rather with the thought process of Will Graham, a detective whose powers of empathy are so strong that he can mentally place himself in the shoes of people completely different to him. Just as Will Graham’s mind is able to transcend itself and enter the identity of others, so too does Manhunter‘s style (and Mann’s throughout his filmography) continually make the viewer transcend merely what we see and hear. We enter a mental voyage — after all, that is what cinema is essentially, but it’s a motif that Mann clearly holds dear; just remember Jamie Foxx’s taxi driver in Collateral (2004) who speaks about taking ‘ten-minute holidays’ in between fares from the seat of his cab merely by looking at a photo of a tropical beach and travelling mentally.

This mental travel is in so many ways what Manhunter is fascinated with as a film. Sure, Lecktor (the character who would take off as the one of most interest from Thomas Harris’ novels) can do that too and has to since he’s stuck in a cell. But Graham is the truly fascinating character that this film is most interested in. He is the film’s pivot, in that he is our medium into the world of dangerous psychopaths capable of unimaginable things, people like Lecktor and Francis Dollarhyde, the serial killer he is currently tracking down, and yet at the same time he does not forego his own compassion and humanity. It’s this key duality in Graham, the ability to have so much empathy that he can even think like a killer, come to understand them and to sympathise with them, while simultaneously always holding onto the same empathy and compassion for the victims and potential victims, that makes him a compelling character. During one conversation, Lecktor from his prison cell tells Graham “We’re the same you and I”, but in fact Graham externalises his own mind in order to enter other people’s bodies, while Lecktor literally internalises other people’s bodies (he eats them) to satisfy his own sick mind. This is very much a film about the exterior and the interior and about the relationship between them hinging on senses, perception and thought processes.

Graham’s mental image of his domestic family shelter: throughout the film the home, as both physical and mental construct, is under menace from an invading external threat.


One constant motif is the idea of invasions and intrusions, be it Dollarhyde breaking into people’s homes, Graham penetrating people’s minds or having his own thoughts ‘colonised’ by the evil he is tapping into, or even the voyeuristic invasion of privacy committed by both Dollarhyde and the paparazzo Freddie Lounds. In all cases, something external attempts to appropriate something internal, personal and private. The fragility of that privacy is what makes the film’s plot so effectively scary. Physical and mental borders are both fallible, whether it be the nightmare vision of the suburban American Dream homes being turned into murder scenes or Graham complaining to his son that he was traumatised by having Lecktor’s thoughts running around his head, “the ugliest thoughts in the world” as he calls them. Hence why the narrative kicks up a gear when Graham realises Lecktor has managed to pass on his personal address to Dollarhyde, shifting a mental psychic threat into a very real physical danger looming over his wife and son. It’s as if an intangible evil is about to physically manifest itself and pierce into the borders of his perceived safety zone and threaten the family unit — just think of the seemingly anecdotal scenes of Graham with his son building a wire fence on the beach outside their home to protect turtle eggs from being eaten by predators, which bookend the film. The external evil threatens to come in at every level of Manhunter; to again use a German Expressionist reference for Michael Mann, it’s a bit like the elemental evil of Nosferatu in Murnau’s 1922 film making its way across Europe to threaten the bourgeois homes of a peaceful German town.

The filter of melancholy blue: Chow Yun-fat in John Woo’s The Killer (1989).

[As a brief side note, that expressionistic melancholy blue, used here to represent Graham’s vision of his family home on a Florida beach, not only crops up again and again in Mann’s films but has influenced other filmmakers. I can’t help but think of a wistful Chow Yun-fat looking into the harbour of the Hong Kong which he is being forced into leaving in The Killer (1989)… I’d wager John Woo almost certainly saw Michael Mann’s films!]

If all these intrusions and invasions represent the interiorisation of what is external in attempts to appropriate it, then the other side of that coin is all the ways in which characters externalise their inner worlds. Dollarhyde projects his personal twisted fantasies and insecurities onto an outside world he does not fully discern; note the tragic irony of his misinterpretation of the incident outside Reba’s front door. As for Reba herself, her blindness makes her literally an interiorised character. She may be able to see things that few others can: the ‘good’ in a monster like Dollarhyde for example, which only Graham’s psychic empathy can also recognise. But in other ways, Reba’s inner perceptions make her metaphorically blind to the dangers looming within the man she cannot suspect to be a schizophrenic serial killer. One of the film’s stand-out visual scenes, when Dollarhyde arranges for Reba to pet the sedated tiger inside a zoo clinic, encapsulates this. While Dollarhyde watches from the corner of the room, thinking he has finally found the perfect match for his voyeuristic needs and his gross insecurities about his own physical form, on the other hand Reba is dangerously unaware that he too is a dormant predator. In all cases, the interior reception of outside signs can be very misleading indeed.

Sleeping tiger and hidden dragon: the tragic-ironic subplot of Dollarhyde’s ill-fated love affair with Reba reveals sensory perception to be misleading.

Then, of course, the most obvious example of the inner world being made outer is Graham himself. As already mentioned, the film abounds with stylistic ploys to make the external around Graham reflect his mental workings. Interestingly, the French title of this film was Le Sixième Sens (The Sixth Sense) — usually French translated titles are pretty woeful, but this one, other than giving French distributors a few headaches a decade later with the release of a certain film starring Bruce Willis, is actually quite revealing. In Manhunter, the act of thinking or perhaps more specifically the act of projecting your thoughts onto someone or somewhere else (call it empathy, or call it mental travel) becomes a strong sensory mode of perception in itself, a kind of ‘sixth sense’. Indeed, as the film goes on it becomes a more trustworthy sense than the sight or touch which other characters rely on. Graham’s skills in donning the thoughts of others like a new suit, his ability to transcend his own individuality and see the completely different perspective of others, are akin to a sort of psychic superpower interior within himself but which allows him to externalise. Nowhere in the film is this more neatly summed up visually than when Graham, in a diner, looks out into the rain-hit night through the window, and speaks both to his own mirror reflection on the glass and to the killer who is simultaneously in his mind and out there in the physical world.

Graham’s cognitive abilities also include ‘mental travel’, as depicted in one of my favourite moments of the film, the airplane sequence where, with his gory police evidence photos of the murdered families sprawled over his fold-out tray table, he falls asleep to a dream-slideshow of images of his own family. Over the gorgeously otherworldly electro-new age music of Japanese composer Kitaro, slowed-down shots of his own idea of a safe haven, of peace of mind, of blues and greens, of other horizons where he can be with his wife on his boat off the Florida coast, wash over his mind (see video below). A brief respite, from those ugly sociopathic thoughts he soon has to return to channelling in order to get a scent for the serial killer, which also tidily indicates how Graham’s mind is compartmentalised, and how it gradually enters the ‘zone’ of those ugly thoughts.

Graham can feel what Dollarhyde or Lecktor cannot. Due to chemical imbalance, or whatever the reason, they lack that which gives us humans the capacity to empathise. Graham is therefore more than them, for he can think the same way they do, while also remaining aware of the sheer terror and horrific fear a person must feel in their final moments of life before being rendered inanimate by a murderer. This sense of knowing is what drives him — like the dream sequence in the airplane, Graham can think how another family being butchered is something that must be avoided at any cost because he relates it to his own family. Throughout the film, there is very little actual violence on-screen, at least up until the climactic conflict between Graham and Dollarhyde. The film, instead, keeps Graham (and us, the viewer) at a remove from the violence, mediating it through police reports, photographs of the victims, information we hear told to Graham, or implied in camcorder video footage. In other words, we like Graham are forced to imagine the violence, to think about it rather than see it.

All this creates a growing sense of abstractness in the film — something very germane to Mann’s modern Expressionist style. See for instance the settings in which the sequences with Graham occur in the second half of the movie: anonymous hotel rooms, furniture-less FBI offices, filing cabinets all over the wall as if symbolising the different compartments of his mind. Nothing ever concrete or precise anymore in these scenes; these locations might as well be mental projections of Graham’s psyche rather than brick-and-mortar places. At this stage, Graham, having finished shadowing Lecktor like a method actor to get the mindset of the man he’s trying to think like, is now mentally rehearsing until it finally clicks. When he finally ‘catches up’ to Dollarhyde, it’s a transition from only knowing him mentally, abstractly, into finally ‘meeting’ him physically (if only to arrest or stop him), a transition which pointedly occurs by a literal break through a window serving as a metaphorical screen, that filter between the mental and the physical, the interior and the exterior.

Will Graham finally breaking the ‘screen’ between him and the killer Dollarhyde, or between his mental conception of Dollarhyde and the real flesh-and-blood killer.


Finally, in its running time, Manhunter achieves the same effect for the audience, making us leap into its world and then off again into our own thoughts. Cinema is often compared negatively to literature as not a thinking medium, but here is a film that, even as it appears to be a commercial Hollywood genre piece, is precisely cerebral in theme and works as a springboard for our own thinking process and (not forgetting empathy) our own emotions. Mann and his team have managed to evoke through cinema so effectively, and into our minds emerge not the “ugliest thoughts in the world” luckily, but an intelligently stylised mood-piece on what it means to think, to see, to perceive, to mediate, and most of all to travel mentally. (December 2020)


Blackhat (2014)

The Hollywood auteur with total artistic freedom is a rare breed today, but Michael Mann’s unmistakable brand of film-making has established him as a super-auteur par excellence. It would take no more than two shots to instantly recognise a Mann movie. So pronounced is his style that it leaves no middle ground in responding to his work, it’s take it or leave it. Audiences either see superficially obsessive mannerisms, or they fall into the aficionados camp who see poetry through the surface veneer. This divide is not set to be bridged by Blackhat, which doesn’t do what it suggests on the tin any more than Miami Vice (2006) did. Both give the appearance of big-budget action/crime films, but reveal a radical structure and a greater interest in carving out moods reflecting Mann’s vision of the modern world.

Mann could therefore hardly have picked more topical ‘modern world’ issues than the internet and transnational cyber-security to continue this trend and put his stamp on. In an overture that’s all about process (typical of Mann, just think of the opening of Thief), we are streamed right into the action with a hypnotic CGI sequence of digital information rushing through cables and circuitboards, eventually translated into the very real effects of a Chinese nuclear power plant explosion. This cyber-attack, with global ramifications, leads to a joint team of Chinese and American security units, with Captain Chen Dahai (Wang Leehom) and his sister Lien (Tang Wei) working in tandem with the FBI (represented here by a frequently scene-stealing Viola Davis and her prickly superior John Ortiz).

Sino-American tensions predictably flare up, especially when Dahai requests his ex-MIT roommate and genius hacker Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) be added to the team, since nobody knows the malignant code used for the attack better. The catch is, Nick’s in jail for hacking crimes, so the FBI begrudgingly make a deal for his help on the investigation. So far, so formulaic. But then this is archetypal Mann, and you just have to flow with it. The sheer momentum of the jet-setting cat-and-mouse game that follows, with Nick and the team always one step behind this mysterious blackhat hacker in a hunt that takes them from L.A. to Hong Kong to Macao and finally Jakarta, helps suspend disbelief and propel us into the experience Mann has created.

Mann is more interested in this experience of individual moments and moods, than plot or even characterisation. So the serial complaints about Thor Hemsworth playing a computer whiz, who reads the post-structuralist philosophy of Baudrillard and Foucault, miss the point. (Not to mention that many seem to forget real-life hacker Stephen Watt, a seven-foot-tall viking of a man with a bodybuilder physique, was the model for Nick’s character.) Nick may be characterised through broad strokes, but he is like all Mann protagonists: a solitary man with a great talent in one specific field and defined by what he does, by his actions, and he has to be accepted as part of a long line of such characters. His existential quandary, as those of so many previous Mann creations, will involve a love interest, symbol of his effort to escape the orbit defining him.

Film Title: Blackhat

Hence a scene that will be familiar to all who’ve seen a few Mann films. Nick, fresh out of jail, pauses to look longingly into the horizon at only he knows what, just like De Niro in Heat and Colin Farrell in Miami Vice before him, staring into the ocean. When Lien joins him in this brief moment of respite to touch him on the shoulder, this signifies she will share with him this impossible dream of escape, which their love will symbolise. Their affair will be a lonely drop of humanity, of hope, in a tech-dominated world they’re both trapped in. Here we get to why so many feel Mann is a successful poet of the modern world, weaving his characters into expressionist settings and environments, in the sense that the way the film depicts them are a reflection of the characters’ mental states.

The digital photography makes the most out of the formal, abstract qualities of the many glittering skyscrapers, making them look no different to the computer interiors in the CGI shots. Hostile technobabble jargon sounds off in every direction, from “RATs” to “programmable logic controllers” (whatever those are), as the sleepless globetrotting manhunt hops from one metropolis to another through brisk editing. People and technology have morphed into one, in this shady reticular world where networks rule, where the intangibility of code-parsing by invisible agents has drastic consequences which ripple in every direction.

Nick and Lien’s hopes of staying together mean they must always be on the run, a typical Mann paradox in a world of constant flux. His human characters have become satellites, orbiting around a hidden centre, but really stuck in the same situation. This is only enhanced by their circular manhunt, and even more so in the bursts of action, which suddenly switch to handheld camerawork full of kinetic energy and 180° axial rotations. There’s a shootout along a helical slope, slowly tracking down a Hong Kong storm drain, and a stupendous finale in the middle of an Indonesian festival parade. Here Nick, obstinately trying to retain a grip on the possibility of that impossible oasis, slips and slides in the opposite direction to on-rushing throngs of costumed marchers (which again remind of the lines of digital info in those CGI shots).

With its cool aesthetic and depiction of an entrapping world of inevitable motion and flux, it’s easy to see Blackhat as a loose sequel to Miami Vice. It is an extension of Mann’s concerns and artistic ideology, as well of his trademarks and obsessions. It’s pure Michael Mann, with all that implies; long-time fans will relish it and those unconverted, and perhaps expecting something more beholden to conventions of verisimilitude, won’t suddenly see the light with this one, as evidenced by the film’s commercial failure thus far. Has it suffered from being judged as what it superficially deigns to be? Probably, but Mann is a unique filmmaker, one of the rare few in Hollywood today who delivers a personal vision of how he sees the world, one which happens to resonate with many, and we should cherish new films signed by him whilst we still can. (March 2015)