Michael Mann’s Damaged Men

17 min read
Michael Mann Damaged Men

Michael Mann Damaged Men

In “Ferrari,” his first film since 2015 — and in “Heat 2,” his first ever novel — the director returns to his great theme: outsiders with a brutal determination to win.

Michael Mann stood at the center of a long, sunlit room, scrutinizing a model of the Ferrari factory as it looked in 1957, thinking about how to improve its appearance. “This should be a pattern,” he said, pointing at the windows, “so that you have almost a musical rhythm, like, two-two-two-two-two, then it breaks, to drive your attention to the entryway.” Around him, a half-dozen collaborators listened closely. After Mann’s decisions were finalized, a construction team would be dispatched to a nearby site to build a replica of the 1957 factory.

It was a May afternoon in Modena, Italy, a small city in the north of the country. Mann was at the production offices of his 14th feature film, “Ferrari,” which will trace three months in Enzo Ferrari’s life, culminating with the 1957 Mille Miglia — an infamous, and tragically fatal, road race. That morning, Mann took the train up from Rome, where he spent the previous day auditioning 26 actors opposite Adam Driver, who will star in the film. “I looked at it as extra rehearsals,” Mann said. “A chance for Adam to start locking in the character.” Dressed for the summertime, Mann wore a roomy ombré button-up that bled from green to black, with white jeans and white Ecco sneakers. He spoke with the thick Chicago accent, full of bent vowels, that he has never lost despite living in Los Angeles for decades. This accent suited him in his 20s, when he drove a taxicab and worked in construction, and it confers on his directorial pronouncements a street-hardened authority.

Mann’s specialty is the meticulous construction of major Hollywood entertainments: big-budget epics and thrillers rich with genre pleasures, rigged with dazzling set pieces and heavy on movie stars like Daniel Day-Lewis (“Last of the Mohicans”), Will Smith (“Ali”) and Tom Cruise (“Collateral”). As interested as he is in making movies for mass enjoyment, though, Mann is by his own description “not a journeyman director — these guys who go from gig to gig to gig. I need a real compelling reason to do something.” Years ago, he spoke of his ambition to move more rapidly between projects, but when I mentioned this to him in Modena, Mann laughed. “I failed utterly in that plan,” he said.


There was, for one thing, the coronavirus. Mann was working in Japan when the pandemic hit, directing the pilot for the HBO Max series “Tokyo Vice,” about a young American crime reporter investigating the Yakuza. Shooting was barely underway when the virus halted production. At that point, it had been five years since the release of Mann’s last film, the underrated cybercrime thriller “Blackhat.” During this gap — one that “Ferrari” will finally close — he tried to bring several ambitious projects to life without success, facing the kind of disappointment all directors grow accustomed to, but perhaps especially those who make films that cost what Michael Mann films cost, and who insist on the complete creative control he insists on.

Mann’s artistic signature is to establish a core of painstaking realism, then create around it a heightened visual and emotional atmosphere that can edge, at times, into a kind of hallucinatory, macho camp. It’s an aesthetic Mann began exploring when he oversaw the epochal 1980s cop show “Miami Vice.” Since then, he has set forlorn peals of electric guitar over a parade of steely faces. He has filmed handsome men walking in slow motion in bulletproof vests, or gazing contemplatively at vast bodies of water that swirl in hypnotic abstraction, or striding beside private jets with sunglasses on. He has rigorously avoided comic relief, while allowing for moments of oblique humor, as when a hardened undercover cop announces, “I’m a fiend for mojitos.” He has scored sex scenes with the anguished rock of Audioslave. Somehow, it works: Chasms of unanswered yearning and alienation seem to roil beneath Mann’s images, and his movies lodge in the brain like fever dreams.

Mann enjoys a cultlike adoration of the kind typically reserved for directors further out on the fringes. His blockbusters have their ferocious partisans, as do his lesser-known pictures and outright bombs, which reliably come up for — and tend to reward — reappraisal. In 2014, the Criterion Collection put out a beautiful edition of his 1981 theatrical debut, “Thief,” helping to spark a broader re-engagement with Mann’s work that included retrospectives at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2016 and at the Museum of the Moving Image this spring. Film scholars devote books and podcast series to him. Underground clothing lines make coveted bootleg tees and caps in homage to his films. Among fellow directors, Mann’s admirers and acolytes include Alfonso Cuarón, Ava DuVernay and Christopher Nolan.

ImageMann on the set of “Thief” (1981).
Credit…Photograph by Marv Newton
Mann on the set of “Thief” (1981).

This February, Mann turned 79 and ushered in an improbably busy year. In April, his “Tokyo Vice” pilot made its debut, setting the show’s fleet feel and stark tone. Not long afterward, it was announced that the financing had materialized for “Ferrari.” And next month, in a particularly unexpected curveball, Mann will release his first-ever sequel, in the form of his first-ever novel, “Heat 2.”

Of Mann’s many movies, none have inspired the sustained obsession — in audiences, and in him — as “Heat.” Al Pacino plays a brilliant police detective named Vincent Hanna, and Robert De Niro plays a brilliant thief named Neil McCauley. They are mirror-image foils engaged in an operatic cat-and-mouse game that unfolds across the criminal netherworlds of Los Angeles, “heading simultaneously for a collision in which both cannot survive,” as Mann put it.

“Heat 2” spans nearly 500 pages, two time frames — before and after the events of the movie — and multiple continents. Rather than representing some larkish detour from the body of Mann’s work, the book drills down into themes that run throughout his filmography.

Vincent and Neil are archetypal Mann protagonists: damaged men who dedicate themselves all-consumingly to their work, chasing an exalted state where extreme capability becomes its own goal. Or, as a member of Neil’s crew memorably puts it, where “the action is the juice.” They derive profound meaning, exhilaration and sense of selfhood from what they do — even at the cost of deep dysfunction and unhappiness in other parts of their lives. In this way, “Heat” crystallizes one of Mann’s career-long preoccupations, paying tribute with one hand to the great American myths of roguish individualism while undermining those same myths with the other.

Mann told me that “Heat 2” took the better part of two years to complete. “I have no idea how to write a novel, OK?” he said. “I do know how to make very, very large movies.” But, he added, “when things are a little bit difficult for me, I’m on the frontier. And I perform better, in my own estimation, on a frontier.”

When Mann describes the path he took to filmmaking, he often mentions formative screenings in college of “Dr. Strangelove” and G.W. Pabst’s Weimar-era landmark “Joyless Street.” But on a couple of occasions, he has recalled an earlier, inexplicable thrill he got “just driving under a steel bridge on a rainy night” and looking up at its gargantuan span, or moving along “those caged iron bridges” around Chicago, their latticeworks cutting up the landscape into a multitude of flickering frames. This excitement wasn’t something that Mann associated with filmmaking at first, but it lingered in his eventual understanding of himself as an artist. If you’re an admirer of Mann’s movies — which exude a hard-hammered visual poetry and tell stories of men traversing liminal realms, searching for things just beyond their grasp — this is as perfect an artistic origin story as you could hope for. “I have an attraction to these twilight zones,” he said.

Time and again, Mann has set up camp on, and then blurred, the borders that separate documentary from fiction, genre from “prestige” drama, literalism from abstraction and the multiplex from the art house. This was true of “Thief,” a hard-nosed, Marx-inflected neo-noir about an expert Chicago burglar, played by James Caan. While shooting, Mann sprayed down the city’s nocturnal streets with tens of thousands of gallons of water, so that they took on an unreal, painterly glow — even as he enlisted a local thief named John Santucci to teach Caan how to breach real vaults onscreen using real techniques and real tools, in what feels like real time. And it was true of “Blackhat” (2015), a globe-trotting thriller that begins with a highly detailed and apparently highly accurate CGI visualization of the insides of microprocessors during a computer hack, captured at 12,000x magnification as they course with electrons — a sequence so extended it becomes trancelike.

“There is absolute beauty and visual joy, a dreamlike sensibility to his films,” Christopher Nolan told me, “but it’s all driven by the function of the storytelling, driven by the minutiae of his research and the extraordinary commitment to narrative detail. The aesthetics grow from that — I don’t know of any other filmmaker who does that.”


In Modena, I saw firsthand how Mann’s interest in creating uncanny dream worlds rests upon a foundation of extreme nuts-and-bolts authenticity. Discussing possible shooting locales for “Ferrari,” and how they would be decorated, Mann paid special attention to the wallpaper that would hang in the bedroom of Enzo’s wife, Laura. His production designer, Maria Djurkovic, had gathered some options. “This doesn’t do it,” Mann said, dismissing them all. He tapped a photo of the original pattern: “It’s the sparseness of the ribbons that really gets at a certain heaviness. And this green.” To Mann, famously demanding, it was crucial to get it right. “We think she died in this room,” he said.

Pinned to a wall behind him were several images of vintage Ferraris painted different screaming reds. He’d tasked his crew with making full-body 3-D scans of these vehicles, crafting perfect facsimile shells and fitting these with contemporary drivetrains capable of high-performance racing. Special recordings, Mann said, would capture the engine sound of period-accurate “small-displacement V12s running very high, this shriek, driving down narrow canyons through masonry, then suddenly they’re out in an open field.” He smiled. “It’ll feel like the air is being ripped apart.”

Mann is something of a Method director, building immersive worlds by first immersing himself in their grain. “I have all this data, real people, real language,” he told me. “It’s not stuff you make up sitting in a room in L.A.” During commentary recorded for “Thief,” Mann talks with Caan about how top-of-the-line vault doors are layered with both copper (“obviously a very soft metal”) and titanium (“very hard”), “so that, when you drill it, if you have a hard bit to cut through the titanium, it hits the copper, it’s going to bind up,” Mann says, extolling “the value of this kind of detail” in making a performance feel truly lived in.

Daniel Day-Lewis, who is one of Mann’s close friends, told me about spending several days with him in the Alabama wilderness before making “Mohicans,” living off the land together in a recreated “18th-century hunter-trapper course.” There, they learned tracking techniques and methods for laying trap lines. They also did “a huge amount of weapons training — black-powder weapons, principally,” Day-Lewis said, explaining that such firsthand experience “creates for each person involved, on both sides of the camera, a belief in the authenticity of what they’re reaching for.”

I’d heard a rumor that, for a short passage in “The Insider,” which dramatizes the true story of a tobacco-industry whistleblower and the “60 Minutes” producer he confides in, Mann sneaked into Baalbek, Lebanon, making financial arrangements with political leaders so he could shoot in the neighborhood where the events depicted actually happened — acting as a middleman, in effect, between Disney and Hezbollah. When I asked Mann about this, he laughed and shook his head. “What happened is, we were going to go to Israel to shoot it,” in the majority-Arab city Umm al Fahm, “and Disney told us, No, no, it’s too dangerous, you can’t go there.” Mann called the journalist Lowell Bergman, portrayed in the movie by Pacino. He asked him, “Can you get us into Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley?” And then he notified the studio of this new plan. He received a frantic response. “They said: ‘Are you out of your [expletive] mind? Go to Israel!’”

No sequence in Mann’s filmography makes the case for the virtues of authenticity as explosively as the showstopping bank robbery in “Heat,” which spills into a broad-daylight melee in Downtown Los Angeles. De Niro and Val Kilmer, who plays his protégé, underwent urban-combat training beforehand, proving such capable students that, according to Mann, Fort Bragg instructors later screened footage of Kilmer reloading his rifle to show cadets how it was done. Before filming, dozens of cars were pummeled at a shooting range with high-caliber rounds, and the crew fitted the holes with detonatable squibs, painted over with Bondo putty. During filming, they triggered the squibs in time with the actors’ guns, ripping open the munitions-accurate damage. Nolan calls “Heat” Mann’s masterpiece, and when we spoke, he singled out a “tiny detail during the bank robbery, where the money is stacked and wrapped in plastic, and they put it into the duffel bags, then use a razor to slash the plastic and bang it, so that it comes loose and takes the shape of the bag.” This moment flies by, but it “grounds the entire robbery in a technical reality that you respect and enjoy,” Nolan said. “You feel you’re watching a film about experts made by experts.” The sequence’s most indelible aspect is its terrifying sound. Mann recorded the gunfire — “full-load” blanks, containing the same powder charge as live ammo — not on a soundstage, as is common practice, but out on the streets, as it reverberated off the sunny steel-and-glass canyons onscreen.

Mann running beside Al Pacino during the filming of “Heat” (1995).
Credit…Photograph by Frank Connor
Mann running beside Al Pacino during the filming of “Heat” (1995).

Mann is committed to total veracity, it seems, except when the prerogatives of compelling image-making win out. While plotting the restoration of Enzo’s neighborhood barbershop in Modena, still open, to its 1957 appearance, he indicated an archival image and said, “Even if the real chairs were darker, I want them to look the way they look in this light.” Later that day, he told me, “all these decisions — every one means something, particularly when you’re dealing with interiors, because that character picked that lamp, picked that fabric, picked that curtain, picked that cheap radio.” He recalled the home décor of the serial killer Francis Dolarhyde, in Mann’s 1986 Hannibal Lecter movie, “Manhunter.” “He’s got the vertical control on his television so he can see the subcarrier frequency, because he thinks there’s a message in there. There are so many pieces of psychopathy that are manifested in the shape of a toaster. Really! It was, ‘Find me a psychotic kitchen chair.’”


He added, “You don’t dwell on these things when you’re shooting, but the audience sees it all.”

One pitch-black night when Mann was in his teens, he drove south from Chicago to a rural Illinois back road, turned off his headlights and floored the gas pedal — hurtling, for a few crazed seconds, into total darkness. He was full of a restless ambition that had yet to find its object, he said, and in “Heat 2,” he lends this quasi-existential stunt to the young Vincent Hanna. “He’s searching, he has that crazy vibration in the nerves running through his arm when he’s 18, saying, I’ve got to get the [expletive] out of here, wanting to move and go places and do things,” Mann told me. “I’m talking about myself, too, when I say that.”

Mann was born in 1943 into a secular Jewish family — “in the city,” he emphasized, noting wryly that “directors from the Chicago suburbs make comedies.” His father, Jack, was a Russian immigrant from Ovruch and a combat veteran of World War II. “He didn’t talk about it much, but it affected everything,” Mann recalled, describing “an absolutely loving man” who suffered from symptoms of PTSD long before it had a name. Jack ran a small supermarket for several years, before he was driven “out of business by a big chain that opened up a block and a half away. My younger brother and I, as amateur arsonists, one night tried to burn it down. We were angry. I think we succeeded in blackening the back door.”


Jack’s wartime experience left him with “a very dark view,” Mann said. Fighting in Germany, “he’d read in Stars & Stripes how American planes had bombed such-and-such a refinery, interrupting the supply of the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. Then four, five weeks later they’d pass the refinery, and everything around it was bombed, but the refinery itself was untouched, because Shell wants to take control of it.” Jack returned to America with “a cynicism about systems,” Mann said, adding, “I totally inherited that cynicism.”

In 1969, Jack died from a pulmonary embolism, just 56. “It shattered my family,” Mann recalled, explaining that his mother, Esther, “made a different life for herself” — starting her own business and entering into new relationships — but “operating from the thesis that ‘the meaningful life I’ve lived is over. I’m not going to just drift into widowhood; I’m going to make a life for myself, but it’s all superficial.’”

No facile interpretive pipeline neatly connects Mann’s biography and the movies he makes. Whereas his filmography is littered with broken, solitary, state-raised men, he says his parents loved each other deeply, and Mann and his own wife, an artist named Summer, have been married since 1974, raising four daughters. “In a city that’s not renowned for child-rearing, he’s managed to raise this wonderful, solid family that’s so close,” Day-Lewis said of Mann, adding, “You go to their house, and it’s an oasis.” But the cynicism Mann inherited from his father can be felt everywhere in his films, and his interest in upstart heroes who assert themselves against powerful forces — mob bosses in “Thief”; predatory tobacco companies and cowardly media conglomerates in “The Insider”; and the U.S. government in “Ali,” his Muhammad Ali biopic — certainly doesn’t contradict the picture of the angry young kid seeking vengeance against the chain grocery that crushed his father’s market.

In the late 1960s, Mann enrolled in film school in England. “I was not going to Vietnam,” he said. He made short documentaries about the ’68 student protests and other social upheavals of the era. In 1979, he shot his first feature, the TV movie “The Jericho Mile,” on location at Folsom prison, where he cast inmates opposite trained actors and incorporated the prison’s distinct hierarchies and customs into the script, about a convict who becomes an Olympic-class runner on the yard. By this point, Mann’s focus had shifted to stories of determined individuals who perceive the workings of oppressive systems and — even if it comes at a ruinous price — insist on charting their own paths through them.

Michael Mann at the London Film School in 1967.
Credit…Courtesy of Michael Mann.
Michael Mann at the London Film School in 1967.

Mann has constantly evolved the look of his movies. His images have become less straightforwardly beautiful, his palettes increasingly leached of color, his framing less formal. Hand-held cameras drift, faces appear unfocused in extreme close-up and the digitally captured dark of nighttime degrades into extravagantly pixelated noise. But thematically he has remained consistent, returning continually to heroes who are peeled away from the dominant ideologies of what Mann has called “the normal range of human experience,” and, from this remove, come to see questions of selfhood, coercion and power more clearly than most of us.

‘Michael’s an unusual blend of things,’ Day-Lewis said. ‘He’s an intellectual, but he thinks like an engineer, and he has the spirit of an artist.’

Often, these characters’ worldviews are forged in prison. In a 2017 interview, Mann recalled the lasting impression of meeting convicts decades earlier who devoured philosophical texts, not with the abstract curiosity of “undergraduates,” but because they had “fundamental questions that they wanted answered, like: ‘How should I view my life in time? What’s property?’ They’ll read Kierkegaard, and Sartre and Marx and Engels. You encounter it with people that have sixth-grade educations, who become quite astute in this raw kind of way.” Frank in “Thief,” Neil in “Heat” and the hacker Nick Hathaway in “Blackhat” all share versions of this pedigree.

Mann told me about a particularly memorable encounter he had inside Folsom, making “Jericho Mile”: “I had one guy in Black Guerrilla Family, weight lifter, 6-foot-2, dangerous guy doing a life sentence. I said, ‘Hey, I’d like you to play such-and-such a role.’” The inmate rebuffed him, explaining, “ ‘I’d be allowing you to appropriate the surplus value of my bad karma,’” Mann said. “He wasn’t trying to impress me with big words. He was serious. He’d read Marx and Engels and knew about surplus value, and he was here because karma put him here.”

Like many of Mann’s protagonists, I remarked, this man seemed to have a bird’s-eye view of his position amid various superstructures. Mann nodded. “If you’re an experienced convict,” he said, “you have a systems analysis.”

The day after I visited the “Ferrari” production offices, Mann picked me up in the lobby of my hotel, and we walked down Modena’s cobblestone streets to get some lunch. He moved spryly, dodging the delivery trucks, mopeds and bicycles that whizzed around us. I’d heard that Mann keeps detailed daily journals going back decades, and at our table he set down his own voice recorder next to mine, along with a thick Mnemosyne notebook bulging with color-coded Post-it notes. “Glass of wine?” he asked.

Neil McCauley, like so much in Mann’s movies, is rooted in real life. In the 1970s, Mann befriended a Chicago detective, Chuck Adamson, who told him a story about getting coffee years earlier with a notorious local robber — the real McCauley. During this encounter, the two adversaries acknowledged a wary but genuine mutual respect, and made it known that, in any future confrontation, each was ready to shoot the other dead. In 1964, Adamson was part of a detail that gunned down McCauley in the street.

With Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx during the filming of “Collateral” (2004).
Credit…Photograph by Frank Connor
With Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx during the filming of “Collateral” (2004).

Inspired by that story’s tense, fateful symmetry, Mann began writing “Heat” in the late 1970s. In 1987, he turned a truncated version of his script into the pilot for an unproduced NBC series, which eventually aired as a TV movie under the name “L.A. Takedown.” This is mostly worth watching today in order to appreciate the vastly superior achievement of “Heat,” which Mann was finally able to make at the proper scale in 1995 — six months of preproduction, 107 days of shooting, 95 locations, $60 million budget — after the success of “Mohicans.” It was De Niro and Pacino’s first time sharing a movie screen.

So, as unexpected as it was to learn that Mann was publishing a novel, it wasn’t shocking that he was returning to the world of “Heat.” Its characters had been with him some 15 years before he made the movie, and they still captured his imagination some 30 years later. “I always wanted to do more with these people’s lives,” he said.