The Rear-View Mirror: Master and Commander (2003)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

My enjoyment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe notwithstanding, I’m not the kind of moviegoer who regularly thinks, “When are they doing the sequel?” A film first and foremost has to be a world unto itself: before you can start to think about creating a universe, tell a good story. World building is fine, but as far as I’m concerned a movie is best served by being self-contained.

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It’s a Mann’s world

Yesterday we watched The Insider, Michael Mann’s 1999 film about whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand, 60 Minutes and the evil machinations of big US tobbaco. I like Mann’s cool jazz style, the calm rhythm of his movies. Watching The Insider for the fourth or fifth time, though, I was struck at how much the director’s cinematic world is a male one.

Insiders inside a car (duh…)

Like in several of Mann’s movies, it’s not so much that there isn’t any sympathy for the women (in this case especially Wigand’s wife Liane, played by Diane Venora), but that the film’s focus always remains with the man, and as a result the women are seen in terms of whether they remain loyal to their men or not. It’s really weird – if I write it like that, it makes Mann sound like the worst misogynist ever. However, I don’t think that’s quite fair. Venora’s character in Heat (this time she’s together with the Pacino character) also decides to walk out on her man because his job is more important than his family. It’s not that he doesn’t love her, but he’s obsessed with what he does. Perhaps that’s why the films aren’t straightforward exercises in sexism – Mann’s men are obsessive-compulsive, they choose their duties like lonesome cowboys. There’s something glamorous and admirable to the male protagonists, but at the same time they’re stuck in adolescence and in the belief that they don’t need anyone else, except the other boys they play their lethal games with.

By comparison, the women live in the real world much more than the men. Things aren’t as clear cut for them. Venora’s Justine Hanna in Heat realises that she will always come second to her husband. Her Liane Wigand knows that Jeffrey (fantastically acted by Russell Crowe, by the way) will not give up his quixotic quest against big tobacco, not even for the sake of his family. She comes off worse, perhaps, than other women in Mann, because Jeffrey Wigand is so clearly doing the right thing. But there is understanding in the film for her plight.

In the hands of a lesser director and actress, Liane and Justine would simply be shrews who screw over their good-guy husbands. It’s difficult to completely shake the feeling that they are disloyal and selfish. But they have a strength and a dignity that makes us look and think twice.

But it doesn’t change that, at its heart, Michael Mann’s world is a man’s world indeed.

Tom and Jamie,/Sitting in a Car…