The reaction to Osama Bin Laden's death has been sheer adulation, with that aforementioned prospect of closure. These ten years, Bin Laden has been a symbol for an ungraspable Dr. Claw-like villain, whose existence was itself open to question. Like Kaiser Soze in The Usual Suspects, Bin Laden was less the stuff of fact than legend. His bogey-man status came all-too-quickly after 9/11. It did not matter if he was alive or dead. The symbol was thriving, whether denoting fear on one side, or inspiration for insurgent voices on the other. Assuming we're going to dismiss the conspiracy buffs and accept that President Barack Obama swiftly and proficiently took care of Bin Laden (as he did in swatting that fly early on in his administration), people have a kind of relief knowing that one less "bad guy" is in the world.
But modernity, and most especially "post-modernity," does not equal "individuality." And though Facebook and social networking gives everyone a "face" on the internet, maybe all we are, essentially, is our avatar, a glistening and perfected surface lacking depth or content, our identities skidding on top of the oceans in go-fast boats afforded to us by the best technology: and we go faster and faster, our avatars increasingly shimmering with perfection. The depths of the water, however, are increasingly held away from sight. It is a mistake to think of Al Qaida and Bin Laden as discontented relics of a medieval age warring on the modern world. On the contrary, one may argue that with their proficiency of satellite phones and cyber networks, they perfectly embody what it means to be modern. Progressive thought has little to do with the "modern": how else does one explain the success of Glenn Beck, Michele Bachmann, and Andrew Breitbart? Bin Laden was a very modern man, held captivated with modernity's inventions and conveniences. He was caught with his pants down in all-too-human fashion, even dying with that last thing that all modern men wish to erase before their demise: their porn stash.
There is that famous image of Bin Laden in his compound watching his own televisual image. This is his masterpiece as a communicator. For he was no longer Osama Bin Laden the biological man, and much more than Osama the folk legend. He was Osama the digital video image. He was ageless now, his own avatar. Even in death, his image could be manipulated, as we saw in hoax corpse images spread on the internet. Al Qaida is imbued within this digital era. It is a globalized network, driven by information technology as much as it is by ideology. Being digital, it has no exact source, and so no end. You kill one Bin Laden, there is another to replace him, and another, and another, and another.
Maybe this is an all-too-pessimistic way to look at the situation. According to sources, Bin Laden's death is a major blow to Al Qaida, which has since been having problems establishing a new face. But the NSA screenings at the airport certainly show no signs of going away. We are still on perpetual orange alert. The Patriot Act was just renewed by President Obama. Though there are promises of troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, unlimited monies and occupation give equal promise to perpetual war remaining in effect. The gravity of the flux serves the establishment's interests, and with more movement and technology change there remains a slower rate of human change. We are lost in the cycle of a procedural. This is apparently the central idea of David Simon's television show The Wire (for which I cannot attest, being that I have not watched the show, much to my detriment according to friends that have viewed it). But before modern serial television, the flux was a more subliminal feature. You killed the bad guy by the end of the episode, any show, and there was another one by next week. Miami Vice, the television show on which Michael Mann made his name and fortune on in the 1980s – and perhaps has since spent a lot of time trying to make reparations on -- is a definitive example. But I think Mann may have seen a lot of systematic meaning in the television format. Given its own gloss and appearance of style over substance, Miami Vice (1984-1989) has been seen as camp since the dawn of the 1990s. But watching the show (or at least the first two seasons; I haven't gotten any further) in its episodic structure, following undercover cops pursue, kill, and incarcerate cocaine cowboys, the striking thing is how blatantly melancholy and anti-establishment the show is. Miami Vice lacks the finesse of modern serial television, but its underlying theme is an important and provocative one for a popular medium. The system creates criminals just as it catches them, and it thrives on this circle. The abstract notions of Justice and Truth are mere masks the procedural wears, while men as pawns waste away under the duress. What's important to the system is not solving problems, but just keeping things moving, and more importantly, keeping things where they are with the power establishment. The irony of the show's pop-cultural signification is that it is seen as an emblem of the conservative Reagan years, when in fact it has political rage directed at both government and corporate powers. Look closely, and you will see a rabble-rousing activist show that is already too pessimistic to hope for a better future.
As I stated above, Mann made his name on Miami Vice, though he never directed an episode (and is credited with co-writing only two). Like his J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) in Public Enemies, he was an autocratic "administrator," which is disappointing for a fan of his films, which are so powerful in their specific, hands-on details (In watching his other television show, Crime Story, one can immediately see Mann's fingerprints on the one episode that he did direct). But the broad strokes of his style and themes are there, in the same way one distantly sees David Lynch in the inferior non-Lynch episodes of Twin Peaks. But Miami Vice made Mann a Hollywood player and even a kind of networked conglomerate, allowing him to later make The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, and The Insider the subsequent decade, some of the period's best films.
And though I'm not certain, I'd swear that I saw Michael Bay's name on the credits of one of the show's episodes, as a production assistant or something. This would not be surprising if it is in fact true, being that Bay started making music videos later in the decade, beginning his own career trajectory towards being a popular filmmaker in the 1990s with Bad Boys and The Rock, both produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. And though Bruckheimer is associated with successful and superficial big budget trash that appeals to our worst instincts as moviegoers, beginning with his partner Don Simpson on films like Flashdance, through Top Gun, Days of Thunder, Crimson Tide, Gone in 60 Seconds, and Con Air, he was also a co-producer on Mann's terrific first feature, 1981's Thief, starring James Caan.
These are the forces that worked together in the machismo decade of the 1980s to structure the modern action film/television series, which on television has been replaced by Bruckheimer's monopoly of CSI dramas (the first of which starred one of the best actors of Mann's core acting company, William Petersen). Ideology is another pertinent matter. Bruckheimer and Bay seem to espouse a more conservative mind-set of neatly drawn lines between good guys and bad guys, in addition to how they want to approach or cater to their audience (on the DVD commentary of the most respectable movie produced by Bruckheimer, Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down, Bruckheimer verbalizes how he believes George W. Bush will succeed in handling terrorism). Mann, on the other hand, was educated at the radical campus of Madison in the 1960s, and was present in Paris for the 1968 riots (one of the few individuals from the English speaking media allowed to be present with the riot organizers). His films draw equivalencies with Marx (whom James Caan quotes in Thief), Herbert Marcuse (name-dropped as the hero of Al Pacino's Lowell Bergman in The Insider), and other radical philosophers like Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio. Aside from Stanley Kubrick, his primary cinematic influences are cited as being from the 1920s Soviets, like Vertov's Kino Eye and Eisenstein. There is an understanding that everything the viewer sees is grounded in some sort of ideology (versus the apathy engendered by Bruckheimer and Bay) and images work to shape thought and attitudes.
The 9/11 Decade flung the world into its own geopolitical action film, the most intense of its kind since the Cold War. Black Hawk Down's release was even accelerated from summer 2002 to December 2001, to capitalize on the time's somber patriotism (and Academy Awards). Bruckheimer and Bay have owned this decade's vision of the popular action film. But in the corner is a mirror to the time's dark and violent heart, embodied by Mann (and additionally Paul Greengrass). Mann's 2006 film adaptation of Miami Vice expresses the period's anxiety better than any other action picture, and it also seems to forecast its outcome. On the one hand, the Bin Laden killing is analogous to a conscience-ridden liberal's nightmare, where due process is suspended as the guns come out, the enemy being terminated by heroes performing with grace under pressure. This suits Michael Mann's style. It connects him with the Bruckheimer sensibility that he helped create, which of course owes its debt to the canon of crime melodramas preceding it. Mann likes the grand one-on-one Western shoot-out where his existential loners can emulate the heroes of Anthony Mann, John Ford, Sergio Leone, and Sam Peckinpah: James Caan's "worker's revolt" in Thief; Will Graham taking down Dollarhyde in Manhunter (even though he's reminded by Jack Crawford, "Will, a SWAT team's going to take him out. Not us."); Chingachgook going after Magua in The Last of the Mohicans; Hanna chasing McCauley in Heat; or Max standing tall and closing his eyes and firing an unfamiliar pistol, killing Vincent in Collateral.
The Navy Seals that killed Bin Laden seemed to have the clockwork efficiency and flawless courage of Mann's best cops and his best criminals, characters who use their tools perfectly in adapting to a specific environment and executing their plans on a beat (look at how the robbers in Public Enemies and Heat are mindful of the clock). This is the same proficiency we see in the military men of Bruckheimer and Bay. Yet while both schools of my invented binary are steeped in admiration for these individuals, Mann has a melancholic longview, whereas one could look at Transformers as a kind of expensive recruitment film. Bay preaches the endgame, the glory of the antagonist's imminent termination. Mann will have his criminals killed, by he sees an illusory victory or heroism, administered by a Grand System that does not care for individuals. This is a theme explored in wonderful analyses on Mann by Professor Mark Wildermuth in his book Blood in the Moonlight: Michael Mann and Information Age Cinema, Steven Rybin (particularly as regards to his chapter on Miami Vice) in his scholarly work The Cinema of Michael Mann, and Jean-Baptiste Thoret's paper on Mann and Miami Vice, "Gravity in the Flux," a piece that understands Mann so perfectly that I feel inadequate in contributing anything to the discussion. Though hearing a nu-metal cover of "In the Air Tonight" during the moments preceding Miami Vice's climactic shootout may channel the furious, testosterone-based expectations of the big-budget action picture, the concluding sense is strikingly different from the chugging guitars and slow-motion "glory" of Bay's climaxes. To write in hyperbole, rather than naked Neanderthal masculine achievement and power, as the gun becomes an extension of a man's penis (which is what Michael Bay essentially is: 100% pure slow-stroking Anthony Weiner-style narcissism as a hairless chest watches itself masturbate in the mirror – Pure Awesomeness of Dude Orgasm sustained for at least 130 minutes), Mann's pictures are completely grounded in a deep melancholy angst. One of the best critics of Mann, Scott Foundas, has appropriately used to phrase "orgies of violence" in describing his action sequences, bridging him to his forebear Peckinpah. And like Peckinpah, behind the echoes of a gunshot is a pronounced blankness (the headline of Richard Schiekel's glowing Time review of Heat in 1995 was "Duel in the Blankness" – and that perfectly nails Mann). These are not videogame bullets. Bullets and bodies carry weight with this filmmaker, and in a spiritual landscape so vacuous, this is burdensome. Death is an escape, as is the numbness of work.
Mann understands systems: criminal, law, penal, economic, technological, and how they all are inextricably connected. And beyond all personal steps, there's the ghost of a great, big nothing haunting everything. Whereas the Michael Bay action climax – or conceit of one special effects set-up following another – is designed with the same expectations of a fit man on Viagra in erect anticipation as a perfectly toned, expressionless woman (like Megan Fox) does her striptease, there's already a kind of pronounced and sad exhaustion with Mann's heroes. Crockett (Colin Farell) and Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) prep their guns shortly before they go out to meet their fate. "It's that time," Tubbs says. "Yup," Crocket replies. "Badges are flashed, guns come out, arrests get made. That's what we do." Just earlier Tubbs was staring into space when his girlfriend and fellow cop Trudy (Naomi Harris) was hooked up to life support. "You know what gets me," he tells Crockett. "The prospect of losing her life. Of her losing her life over this bullshit line of work." Both moments in Miami Vice are a couple of the very few instances where characters are given a moment to stop working in the simulacrum and flux of work, and reflect on where they're at and who they are. A common criticism of Miami Vice during its release was how it failed to develop its characters in a conventional three-dimensional fashion, but when we look at the blank white walls of the safety houses, so much like Neil McCauley's (Robert De Niro) walls in Heat, we should understand that this is exactly the point. The key plot conflict in Miami Vice relates to how Crockett, undercover as a drug mover, has fallen in love with one of the cartel middlemen, Isabella (Gong Li). But whatever desire existing between two human beings (who are being mutually duplicitous) is secondary to the designs of the System and its perpetual motion of capital exchanges. "She could be a white collar money manager," Tubbs says to Crockett, "she may even be true love. But she's with them." And in Hollywood action movies, this is what the story is to reflect. You're either an Autobot or a Decepticon, in Transformers-speak. Crockett and Tubbs realize that it's a script, and they sigh before the climax saying, "Let's do this.". Signs or given avatars determine everything, much as Miami Vice's own cultural sign spelled its fate for a lot of moviegoers and critics; its execution is contradictory to what the words "Miami Vice" subliminally mean to us, so much that when the title appears at the end of the picture, it's disarming to see it (a director's talent or subtext does not matter; they may be similarly unmoved by Peckinpah's Little House of the Prairie, or Antonioni's Hill Street Blues). Crockett and Tubbs are programmed cyborgs (and we are programmed moviegoers in a regurgitating pop-culture), constant performers and players as undercover vice cops, but they understand the deep truth that this is still a "bullshit line of work."
Upon release, Mann fans (like Nick James in Sight and Sound) saw Miami Vice as a test of faith, being in line with so many other Hollywood remakes of popular television shows: feeble nostalgia, like Charlie's Angels and Starsky and Hutch (or the upcoming Transformers). But if Miami Vice is not avant-garde action cinema, one must at least allow that it is definitely not conservative, and probably as uncompromising a film that a big budget would allow (of apparently $120 million at minimum, close to $200 million at maximum, indicative of a system of capital that has itself certainly run out of its soundness – though I'm thankful in this case). Miami Vice is a middle-finger to what action movie images have become, particularly during a decade when so much money has been spent on wars where the images of violence and flesh being burned off has been the focus of conscious redaction on the part of the image manufacturers. That Miami Vice cost so much and yet is so contrary with the expectations of its summer cop-action-drama audience is very fitting for a post-9/11 world of intensive military recruitment and good/bad binaries lacking skepticism (Weeks before its release, Fox News entertainment writer Roger Friedmann was vocal about Universal's misgivings about how far Mann had taken the film away from the show, not even having the original Jan Hammer music; a Michael Mann viewer, on the other hand, understands this immediately; Kim Masters wrote similar misgivings from the Hollywood establishment to Mann about Public Enemies in 2009). Certainly one of the most grievous annoyances of the original television show was how prime time action could not show much – if any – blood whatsoever, and so how the characters look like children playing with toy guns as they fire on each other, bodies selectively falling without much corporeal disgust or collateral damage caused to bystanders and inanimate objects. With the first shootout of the film Miami Vice, when Aryan Brotherhood dealers kill undercover FBI agents during a "preliminary meet-and-greet," Mann makes sure that we see and so understand the effect of fast-moving metal weaponry on human flesh, and beyond that, abstract information on that flesh. The words of informant Alonzo Stevens (John Hawkes) were compelled by a simple digital photograph emailed to him, of his beloved wife Leonetta, taken hostage. Three men are killed because of the transfer of information. Money continues to flow. Between the digital lines are lives, and more than lives in the abstract, flesh with all of its tendons, limbs, and central nervous systems, comprising those lives and having sentimental attachment to other corporeal beings. Miami Vice is a very Romantic work in the most literary sense of "Romanticism," where Nature is running up against the designs of Civilization and Technology. It is significant that this first bloody shoot-out, with an arm hurtling backwards in slow-motion, has a background of electronic light, where machine apparatuses seem to be serving the sole purpose of other mechanical systems. The most important space in this schema is the non-space of the electromagnetic, the same place where much of the "invisible war" of Iraq was fought, as insurgents detonated bombs from a distance with a cell phone (and something that we see drug dealer Jose Yero do here).
I call Miami Vice the definitive film of the post-9/11 era, just as it is – by association – possibly the definitive film – pre-Social Network anyway – of the Information Age era, of which Mann is Godfather (and whose The Insider is probably the other great dramatic Hollywood text, alongside The Social Network). In 2006, it bridged two other great cyber thrillers. Paul Greengrass' United 93 and Martin Scorsese's The Departed also deal with 9/11, explicitly in one case, subtextually in the other, and they are attuned to the technological/videoscopic informatics implicit and resultant of the event. Whereas those two films, far more conventionally satisfying I think in their own separate ways (United 93 as a verite, almost real-time thriller; The Departed as a straight noir, and a candidate for one of Scorsese's most conventional plots – a mask for one of his richest subtexts), were more critically successful by virtue of how they exuded a more concrete humanism, Miami Vice has a certain coldness to it, though it is essential. Blade Runner is a key precedent for it, as it is for all cyber noir (The Departed's own aura is attained by being a kind of amalgamation of Blade Runner and Sidney Lumet's Prince of the City), and the screenplay structure of Vice seems to have a kind of digital determinism, or steady flow of constant movement. Thoret writes, "The opening ten minutes are enough for Mann to fix the rhythmic rules of Miami Vice; the event taking place will always matter more than the one that follows, whence the strange feeling of a film in pursuit of itself, obsessed by the next job, the action that follows…It is as if each shot were thinking of two things at once – the event taking place (a deal, an arrest) and the event to come (the same over again) – and the best way to not collapse consists of never staying still. In Miami Vice, it's to be physically there, here and now, because mentally one is always and already elsewhere." Thoret gives a funny example of the film's "short-winded" nature as if it were "in constant precocious ejaculation," bringing up the bedroom joke Tubbs plays on Trudy, where he fakes a premature orgasm.
Mann uses this same kind of story structure where characters are always moving – but to nowhere – in Public Enemies, which even has a song-lyric joining its images, "Don't know where they're going, don't know where they've been." The form of his storytelling is viscerally felt, something that for me divides the newer Mann from the older one who had more immediately satisfying plots, such as found in Manhunter, Heat, and Collateral. That last film was a potent turning point, given how it was mostly shot in high-definition video in a way that wore the image's lossless compression. Mann does not want to hide his video, and is consciously placing it in a paradigm separate from celluloid. But as technology has gone digital, so have Mann's heroes, evaporating into the pixel ether of being and non-being; cabbie Max (Jamie Foxx) works to reach a big dream of owning his own limo company, but will more likely remain fixed in the present flow of taxi driving, working on his dream until he wakes up old; his opposite is hitman Vincent (Tom Cruise), a man without an identity or a history, willingly erasing himself as he kills others for a steady flow of income. A question Mann's film of Stuart Beattie's screenplay – which he describes as the third act of a much larger elliptical story – asks is where exactly does this toil – the "bullshit line of work" – end? It's significant that Collateral ends on an LA train, carrying Vincent's bullet-ridden corpse that no one will probably notice for a long while. Even though the train's coming to the last stop, it will only keep on moving in the other direction, whirled without end, back and forth. The work never ends for individuals, the only true stop being death – something portrayed by Vincent here, and by John Dillinger – who lives for the present until the promise of romantic fulfillment provokes him to step "off the map" – in Public Enemies.
As Thoret noted, in Miami Vice, the movie itself seems to be trapped in "the Here and Now." "Everything progresses at top speed," writes Thoret, "but essentially nothing really moves forward." This makes it frustrating viewing at first, as instead of a predictable flowing arc, there is a straightforward trajectory into nothingness. To be active in the flux or the simulacrum as a steady worker "is also to lose oneself therein," something metaphorically offered by Alonzo's tragedy in Miami Vice, where the Aryans' contract to keep his wife alive is broken. With nothing left, he walks into oncoming traffic, leaving a briefly-viewed path of blood beneath a semi. Thoret nails Mann's theme, and really the theme of all of his films, when he says, "[The] human is only an event, a lost atom in the multitude." Mann's heroes are always in search of that elsewhere beyond the flow of work and action: Frank's collage in Thief, of attaining a nuclear family and financial stability; Neil McCauley's goal to retire to New Zealand in Heat; the Mohicans and settlers, seeking freedom from the violent political conflicts in The Last of the Mohicans; Wigand and Bergman in The Insider, trapped by their respective systems of Big Tobacco and CBS Broadcasting (which are both incidentally connected because of their monolithic natures) in The Insider; Max's postcard of the Maldives in Collateral; and John Dillinger's place "off the map" in Public Enemies, which he can sometimes taste at the movies. Miami Vice has a curiously dissonant moment when the film's flow is interrupted as the vice cops prep snitch Nicholas (Eddie Marsen). There are numerous ironies going on here, being that Nicholas, simply by being employed as a snitch, makes substantially more money than the cops who rough him up (the flux keeps his "cash flow" coming, Tubbs tells him). The cops work to intimate him, much like Al Pacino's Vincent Hanna works over his snitch in Heat: it's a performative aspect of the job. But then Mann frames Crockett in close-up. He turns away from the talking and looks out to the ocean. The sound disintegrates and he's lost in his dreams for a brief moment. Just as suddenly, he turns back to his work.
"The system runs at full speed but on empty and possesses no other end than that of its own stability," says Thoret. This describes the late-capitalist, global network that interests Mann, displayed in his post-modern crime and corporatist dramas, but designed and administered by the imperialists of yesteryear in The Last of the Mohicans and J. Edgar Hoover in Public Enemies. This describes the War on Terror just as it describes the War on Drugs (or Hoover's "War on Crime"), and though Miami Vice is "drug war" film and not a "terror war" film, it associates with the latter. Tubbs even mentions how the drug lord Archangel de Jesus Montoya (Luis Tosar) utilizes technology that the CIA has in Baghdad. The drug dealers here are not "cocaine cowboys," but are "vertically integrated," as Nicholas says. They are panoptical with omnipresent eyes, part of the whole apparatus. Montoya's key middleman is Jose Yero (John Ortiz), who has pronounced eyeglasses, and runs a system of constant surveillance. In his book, Al Qaeda and What It Means to be Modern, the philosopher John Gray writes, "Al Qaeda resembles less the centralized command structures of twentieth-century revolutionary parties than the cellular structures of drug cartels and flattened networks of virtual business corporations. Without fixed abode and with active members from practically every part of the world, Al Qaeda is 'a global multinational'." Like drug cartels, Al Qaida is now a virtual business, a structure without a center; it lurks in a digital realm. The execution of 9/11 was a masterful act of post-modern communication on every level. Just as Muhammad Ali gave the geographical location of Vietnam as "on TV," it is on the televisual screen where Al Qaida effectively showed its face (just as in The Insider, Lowell Bergman and 60 Minutes speaks to the leader of Hezbollah and offers him a "face" through a Mike Wallace television interview). Writes Gray, Al Qaida understands that "the twenty-first century wars are spectacular encounters in which the dissemination of media images is a core strategy."
Law enforcement reacts to illegality by becoming a Hobbesian surveillance state, and the workers within that state are denied individuality -- though promised "Freedom" -- as they merge with the virtual electromagnetic field that they are investigating and seeking to control. Miami Vice has an interesting presentation that almost demands subtitles as characters talk about their "Op-Secs" or whatever other jargon. They are more machine-like than human, constructed alongside their technology and bent on defining reality by that technology. The illegal actions of the Haitian pimp Neptune (Isaach De Bankole) are viewed on a cell-phone camera; airplanes are only "ghosts" if they are perceived for a second on radar technology, as we see Tubbs pilot a plane beneath another plane; go-fast boats run closely together to do the same. Elsewhere, Lt. Castillo (Barry Shabaka Henley) can only order his men to shoot on cartel snipers when his technological gadgets have picked up their radiating human forms through a mechanical lens. Finally, Yero, who has eyes on everything with his surveillance command center in a casino, proves to Montoya that Isabella has more than a "casual" relationship with Crockett, showing him the two duplicitous lovers dancing, their images on a laptop screen. Again, those other two cyber-punk masterworks from 2006, United 93 and The Departed, operate with the same language. In the former film, the Air Traffic Controllers have their eyes locked on radar screens, just as the military personnel have a hard time distinguishing "real world" crises from simulations. In The Departed, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) "erases" Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his identity by simply hitting a delete button: you are a social security number. You are merely your avatar, your outward sign (your wedding ring, your t-shirt, your badge). Though race matters, lineage is inconsequential (why does the Irish mob boss, Frank Costello, have an Italian name? This is a question the film wants us to ask that even the most perceptive critics have not). History is nothing, a resonance that makes The Departed an inverse of GoodFellas.
This sci-fi platform is why Mann's conspicuous use of HD videography – which understandably annoys so many film purists – works so well. We get the sense of an electronic, digital world where even the human beings are units of binary code, and the screened image has become ubiquitous. Thoret points out how the final shoot out between the vice cops and the cartel looks a lot less like than the operatic mid-film downtown L.A. shootout in Heat – so gloriously cinematic and the best shoot-out of its kind – than modern-day war reporting from a 24-hour news outlet. This is also why one of the obstacles in making the film – the worst hurricane season in the region's recent memory – further informs Miami Vice's Romantic theme. Nature truly is embattled with Civilization, the personal dreams of an individual longingly looking for human attachment and the depths of the ocean contrasting with the flux of work in globalization. This is not Thomas L. Friedman's progressive sense of post-Cold War globalization that we read about in The World is Flat. Mann's films show how the new communication and information technologies have worked to abolish time and distance, and in doing so have obliterated our ability to experience a sense of freedom in our need to reflect.
This true meaning of globalization, where things are always moving but caught in an ever-present Now with no historical perspective, was finally locked in with the modern myth of Al Qaida and the legacy of 9/11. The end is only an abstraction, when in practice everything is ceaselessly in motion without development (much like an episodic television show). The new wars promise an End to Terror, the same way the Drug War promised its own accomplishments, but we are consequently only deeper into the flux with more bodies but fewer souls to count. It is the toll of hegemonic control: if governments restrict drugs, there will be violent drug cartels. If governments have military and economic bases in Islamic countries, there will be insurgencies. Meanwhile, capital keeps on flowing throughout all sectors. Montoya is wealthy beyond measure, but he is joylessly glued to Bloomberg TV; outside of his limo, the streets of a South American country are littered in the debris of empty merchandise boxes, taken from the first world and sold for a discount here. Global capitalism lays the world bare, leaving discarded remnants of waste. The cop and criminal, soldier and insurgent, are not opposites, but are pawns in the same steady, absurd process of power maintenance. In this global technocracy, where history takes place on television and laptop screens, there is no such thing as "home." Just as Yero is dispatched, blown apart by Tubbs (Osama Bin Laden-style, I imagine), there is no closure to the narrative that keeps on moving to nowhere. SWAT teams close in on Montoya's house, but he is gone. Indeed, everything is gone. Like the airplane blip on the radar, he too is a ghost, traveling through the ether, and yet still controlling everything. He is the way of the future, an intimation grasped when we see his empty compound and hear Audioslave's lyric, "The shape of things to come" on the soundtrack. In virtually every other nostalgia picture, including Transformers, this is the filmmaker's promise of a sequel. But Mann's characters are haunted: "This has no future," Crockett says to Isabella about their romance, and he could well be also talking about authentic humanism in big motion pictures. Global capitalism is a False Dawn, a Hegelian End, but the perfection of that end is the disintegration of the self.
"You cannot fight gravity," Crockett says. Freedom is a myth, and the gadgets that compress space and time, making us increasingly dependent on them, may not open up the world, despite of their progressive intentions. Instead, we are sealed up and doomed to be locked in repetition. Mann's pop soundtrack reflects this: songs like "Numb," "Strict Machine," and "Auto Rock" decorate Miami Vice, feeding into its electric nightmare of angst. Within all of Miami Vice's subtitle-required tech-speak, and the conspicuous addiction of men to their machines, there is the almost humorous break from the action, where Crockett and Isabella go to Havana – Haven of Peace – to dance and make love (someone I know derided this sequence: "What the hell? You travel to Cuba and stop everything just to get laid?") The careful viewer will notice how elementally things stick out in this extended sequence, as there is virtually no use of cell phones or electronics. It is an immersion into the remains of the human in a world given to the post-human, a dream within a dark-age, as Isabella shows Crockett photographs of her mother, explaining her origins as a Chinese-Cuban; he meanwhile talks about his father's experience as a trucker touring with Lynard Skynerd (in a bar that seems to be saturated in photographs). The cars of Cuba make this look like a trip into the past, where the post-human was never permitted to happen. It is a respite from the onslaught of the digital, but all too quickly Crockett will have to leave, getting back to work.
That's the uncomely rhythm of Miami Vice which make it so strange, a new kind of action film just as 9/11 announced a new kind of war. One story trajectory instantly uploads another, and another, and so forth. The film begins with the vice cops prepping to arrest Neptune, but with Alonzo's call, everything switches. It then becomes a case of "Who is the leak?" The FBI? The DEA? ATF? Crockett and Tubbs are hired to infiltrate the Aryans and Jose Yero, but that leads to the global network of drug running, and so on. By the time the picture is over, the question of the leak is over, and we continue to be hurtled forward against the gravity of time. There is no satisfaction. Certainly, Jose Yero's death is one that's well-earned, much like Osama Bin Laden. But the rabbit only goes deeper into the hole, and all the ends remain loose. What we're left with is "a bullshit line of work," and no time – time being luck – to find meaning. We aren't left with the feeling of goals accomplished, but only the deeply intimate things that have been lost (embodied in another human being). This is a frustration that many viewers had with Miami Vice as a summer action movie in 2006, and so it serves Mann's theme well. Crockett walks away from love and Isabella, on her boat to Cuba as she stares longingly back at the shore. He walks into the hyperreal cloned-without-end buzzing walls of the hospital, into the flux of No Time and No Here but Now and Nowhere Else, Mogwai's "Auto Rock" thumping like the programmed rhythm of a decaying cyborg heart, a blade runner. The narrative has ended but nothing has changed. This is a theme in all of Mann's previous films: victory is all excruciatingly local and brief, following which the call of a glistening techno wilderness beckons the hero back into its grasp, ad infinitum until there's nothing left but the dark. However, in Miami Vice more than any other mainstream film during the decade following 9/11, Mann makes us feel the numbness of the electromagnetic invisible ghost war for our identity, where we are already Autobots and do not see it yet.
Gray, John. Al Qaeda and What It Means to be Modern. Faber and Faber. London, 2003.
Rybin, Steven. The Cinema of Michael Mann. Lexington Books. Lanham, MD, 2007.
Thoret, Jean-Baptiste. "Gravity of the Flux." Recovered at: http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2007/feature-articles/miami-vice/.
Virilio, Paul. The Information Bomb. Verso Books, 2006.
Wildermuth, Mark E. Blood in the Moonlight: Michael Mann and Information Age Cinema. McFarland & Company, Inc. Jefferson, North Carolina, 2005.