After walking out of Blackhat a few weeks ago, I’ve been questioning whether or not Michael Mann is a great director, or if he was ever as good as I used to think he was.
I seriously used to be a huge fan of his films. His best (Heat, The Insider, Collateral) were fascinating psychological studies of cops, criminals and TV journalists. He’s been incredibly influential – without Heat, we’d have no Dark Knight, and thanks to the look he pioneered on Miami Vice and Crime Story, he set the standard for production design in network television (a look he largely stole from Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist.) But lately I’ve become increasingly disappointed with his cinematic output, and his latest film, Blackhat, is proof positive that he’s no longer at the top of his game.
I went into Blackhat thinking that there was no way it could be as bad as Miami Vice, which, eight years ago, gave me the first hint that maybe Mann wasn’t as great as I previously thought he was. Amazingly enough, it managed to be even worse, and since I consider Miami Vice one of the worst films of all time, this means Blackhat is now somewhere on my “all-time worst” list, somewhere above J. Edgar and beneath Disaster Movie. It’s a massively incompetent film that exemplifies all the things that drive me crazy about Mann.
How does Mann drive me crazy? Let me count the ways:
He sucks at establishing characters.
This may be a factor of my ADHD, but whatever it is, I have noticed that, as a moviegoer, if I do not know the names of the characters, or the names of the actors playing them, I emotionally check out of the movie and spend most of it going, “Who are you?” With the exception of Collateral, Mann does this with every one of his movies. The only ways I’ve been able to follow Heat and The Insider have been by writing out the plots on my laptop or in a notebook, which I did when studying his films in my 9th grade Film Studies class. It’s such a pervasive problem for me that I’ve called it “The Michael Mann Problem” for many years now, because the first time I noticed this was while watching his films, and with almost every one of his movies he’s committed this sin. Which brings me to my next point…
He’s too far ahead of the story for his own good.
The best piece of advice I’ve ever heard about exposition comes from the director Charles Crichton: “Get ahead of the audience.” It will always save your ass, but if you go too many steps ahead of them, then they’ll be stuck playing catch-up and won’t listen to what you’re saying – like if they’re trying to figure out the names of the characters. Mann does this in such a way that he assumes you already know the major points of the story, so that he doesn’t have to focus on them. This is what derailed Ali for me – apart from the classic biopic problem of “Trying to cram all the major life events into a movie,” Ali’s failure stems largely from its assumption that the audience already knew everything about Muhammad Ali’s life going in. Therefore, none of the major moments in his life resonated, because they were all rushed over and couldn’t breathe as cinema.
He can’t shoot digital. There, I said it.
For everyone’s praise towards Mann’s cinematography in his last couple movies, I’m here to burst that bubble. Michael Mann has no idea how to make digital cinematography have any majesty or grandeur to it. I’ll let him off on Collateral, because that was a combination of digital and 35mm, and for shooting night scenes, looking a little grainy can be OK. But Miami Vice felt like nothing but pixels, Public Enemies’ muted pallet was so devoid of liveliness that he might as well have just shot the whole film in black and white, and Blackhat is so jittery it might as well have been shot by someone from the Michael J. Fox School of Fine Camera Holding. Stop giving me this whole “artistry with a camera” stuff. I can shoot better, clearer pictures on my iphone. In a world where we have beautiful digital films like Life of Pi and Birdman, he should be ashamed.
No interest in female characters.
Name one interesting woman in a Michael Mann film. I can’t, can you? If you can, then you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din. Sure, Mann can get some good performances out of women – Amy Breneman in Heat, Marion Cotillard in Public Enemies, but is there any question that he spends more time focusing on male psychology than on female? The only reason women exist in his films is to provide love interests for the men, and when the men try to save them, he’s usually off his game as a storyteller – the final act of Collateral, where Jamie Foxx tries to save Jada Pinkett Smith from Tom Cruise, keeps it from being an A+ movie and knocks it down to a B+. And the fact that he repeated the exact same male-female dynamic in both Miami Vice and Blackhat – brooding dark guy with sexy Asian lady! – without realizing the shallowness of the relationship in the first place, is just absurd. I genuinely want to know: if more women were movie critics than men, would they consider Mann the artist that most male critics do?
He doesn’t seem to know what the internet is.
This is a Blackhat-related complaint mostly, but Mann is the latest in a long line of filmmakers recently who seem to have no idea how the internet works or what it does. Yes, the internet and the rise in digital technology is like fire – it can cook your food or burn your house down – but isn’t presenting it as an evil, monolithic thing that anyone can hack into such a cliché at this point? Men Women and Children and Disconnect were laughed off the screen for this cliché, and Blackhat deserves to be too. And if you want a great story about how scary technology can be, watch Black Mirror.
All of this is to say that Mann is proof of the major weakness of the auteur theory: that auteurist critics will try to justify anything a director they like does, while losing the ability to tell a good film from a bad film. Much of this has to do with the fact that, while directors are still alive, it’s hard to do this. Picasso was the greatest painter of the 20th century, but we’re far enough from his moment in history to be able to say where he was good and where he failed. We don’t know how to do that with movie directors – Godard, Hitchcock and Mann being prime victims of the auteur theory. Because Mann has a unique style, and similar themes in all his films, auteurists give him books and long articles praising everything he does. But having a style doesn’t necessarily make you a good director – it just means you have a style. Sidney Lumet never had a “style” that pervaded all his films, because he knew that the style had to change from film to film, and be attached to the content, not independent of it. Mann never detaches his singular “style” from anything he does, and as a result his movies all dissolve into a blur of hyper-masculine B.S. I’ll still like his good work. But as of now, I’m turning in my fan club badge.