Dueling Visions of Human Life

THE UNITED STATES as envisaged in cinema is often a fight club, a place where there are three kinds of people—the thieves who milk the system, the cops who try to catch them, and the rest of us, who are either oblivious or caught in the crossfire.

Director Michael Mann has been advancing this notion for about three decades, in elegant but brutal films such as Heat, Collateral, and Miami Vice. His protagonist is usually a lonely, well-dressed man in love with adrenaline, money, and the guns he uses to get them until a crisis—in the form of a woman or a robbery gone wrong—ruptures his hopes for tropical island retirement.

Mann’s new film, Public Enemies, is the story of the FBI’s tactics in the 1930s, a period that reinforced the idea that justice can come from a gun barrel if it is fired by an agent of the state. If Public Enemies is true to its director’s form, it will be a film in which men actualize themselves through violence. Mann’s films are compelling, stylish, and exciting, but it’s unclear what Mann thinks about violence: Does he find it attractive, or is he simply addressing the fact that it exists?

Crime, and the methods used by the state to control or restrain it, need to be examined in art, but Mann’s characters don’t seem to believe it’s possible to have an extraordinary life without killing anyone—nor that we can achieve criminal justice without someone dying.

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Sojourners Magazine August 2009
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