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Michael Mann 101: The Director's 4 Greatest Films

Written by Greg McIver. Published: December 20 2014
Recently, the trailer for the latest Michael Mann film Blackhat made it’s debut on the world’s stage. Blackhat tells the story of a dangerous man wreaking havoc upon the world through cyberspace and the criminal freed from prison in order to stop him. The film features an impressive cast including Chris “The God of Thunder” Hemsworth, Viola Davis, John Ortiz, and relative newcomer Wei Tang.But despite the impressive fire power in front of the camera, it is the director, Michael Mann, that has me excited for this latest cyber-caper.
The name Michael Mann might not carry the same weight as, say, Stevie Spielberg or Marty Scorsese, but he is a cinematic force to be reckoned with, I can assure you. In 1981, he presented to the world his first feature film, Thief, featuring James Caan, Robert Prosky, and Dennis Farina. Since then, he has helmed a number of Hollywood pictures, many of which can stand alongside some of the greatest movies ever made. So, allow me to take you on a trip down Memory Lane as I recount to you some of Michael Mann’s finest work so that you know precisely what you're getting into with Blackhat.
Heat (1995)
I don’t presume to be able to accurately describe just how brilliant this film is in only a few short paragraphs. Aside from it being the first on-screen pairing between two of the greatest film actors of all time, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, “Heat” is one of the finest crime dramas ever made and carries with it an enormous scope and an intensely finite examination of its own characters that either stands up to or dwarfs any film that has come before or since. In short, it’s one my favorite movies of all time, and if you haven’t seen it, then you should seek it out immediately.
Manhunter (1986)
Any Hannibal Lecktor fans out there? Of course there are, and for the record, the spelling of Hannibal’s last name in that last sentence was intentional. For most people, their first introduction to the character of Hannibal Lector was with the 1991 classic Silence of the Lambs. But in reality, everyone’s favorite cannibalistic psychiatrist came onto the film scene back in 1986 in Michael Mann’s adaptation of the novel Red Dragon (not to be confused with 2002's Red Dragon, which was a remake of Manhunter). Manhunter features an impressive cast that includes William Petersen, Dennis Farina, (a Michael Mann favorite, apparently), Tom Noonan, and Brian Cox as Hannibal Lecktor (that is how it’s spelled in this movie). Manhunter is a cold, analytical, and absolutely absorbing tale about the hunt for a deranged serial killer who is seemingly selecting his victims (entire families) at random. William Petersen plays the O.G. Detective Will Graham (currently played by Hugh Dancy in NBC's "Hannibal"), a man with the uncanny ability to understand how the mind of a psychopath works. His understanding of the deranged criminal mind was so great that it allowed him to capture Hannibal the Cannibal, but not without paying a price both mentally and physically. Manhunter is an incredibly chilling and fascinating psychological thriller and easily one of Michael Mann’s best.
The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
Based on James Fenimore Cooper’s historical novel of the same name, The Last of the Mohicans is Michael Mann’s first period piece and one of the finest examples of the term “poetry in motion” that I can think of. I say this because the movie has such a powerful forward moving momentum that you cannot help but be swept away by the drama and the strength of the story. And yet, despite the energy and the fast pace of the film, the journeys and evolutions of our lead characters are never ignored as Michael Mann can deliver large amounts of information with just a movement of the camera or with one single glance from our players. The film takes place in the middle of The French and Indian War and tells the tale of three outsiders (Mohicans) who happen upon an ambush and rescue the lives of a British colonel’s daughters. The film stars Daniel Day Lewis as Hawkeye, a colonist who was raised by the Mohicans when he was abandoned as a child. Mr. Lewis, of course, delivers a fine performance, as does the rest of the talented cast that includes Madeleine Stowe, Russell Means, Wes Studi, and Jodhi May. The Last of the Mohicans is a beautiful film that I would happily recommend if only for the last 20 minutes alone. Best. Movie. Climax. Ever.
The Insider (1999)
This film is based on the true story of Jeffrey Wigand, a former chemist who worked for the tobacco company Brown & Williamson, and how he went public after being fired to testify to the fact that Big Tobacco was purposely modifying their cigarettes to make them more addictive. He is urged to do this by Lowell Bergman, a producer on the show "60 Minutes", who feels that Wignad’s story is too important to be sacrificed in the name of greed and complacency. Michael Mann’s version of these events features Al Pacino as Lowell Bergman and Russell Crowe as Jeffrey Wigand. First of all, I’ll say that this is easily my favorite Russell Crowe performance, and as far as Pacino is concerned, he’s at the top of his game as well. This intense drama really pulls back the curtain and shows us a world where one has to fight to bring the truth to light, even if it means losing everything in the process. Is what Wigand has to say important? Of course it is, but we live in a world where corporate agreements and shared business interests have usurped honesty as being the best policy. And while this film is a searing look at one of many embarrassing moments in our country’s history, it is also a heartbreakingly intimate character piece that details the gauntlet of humiliation and degradation that a good man must go though in order to be able to look his children in the eye and tell them that he did the right thing. (Be advised, the below clip contains adult language and some of the best acting you’ve ever seen.)
(Photo via Nikki Nelson/WENN)
- Greg McIver, YH Staff