Of A-list journeymen directors, Michael Mann is a unique specimen with a disarming record of electrifying perfectly mundane material—whatever his context, Mann works like a cattle dog to make it a new and visually arresting experience. He transformed lit-course stalwart The Last of the Mohicans into a throbbing arboreal passion, standard policier Heat into an elegy for Los Angeles’s postindustrial emptiness, the topical crusading of The Insider into a fried-nerve domestic meltdown. Consider the difference had each project—or Ali (opening Christmas Day), for that matter—been directed by Norman Jewison. (The one Mann project that couldn’t conceivably be handled by a more orthodox director’s asbestos gloves is the one that never got made: a remake of Kiss Me Deadly. “We were always a heartbeat away,” Mann says now.) Ali is as much about the ambiguous spaces the eponymous icon found himself struggling within as about the man himself: boxing rings, press conferences, draft-board meetings, Nation of Islam venues, Zairean shantytowns. Mann doesn’t just shoot a scene when he can revitalize the vectors of spatial tension.
“That’s funny to hear,” Mann muses when his anomalous visuals are praised, “because I primarily see myself as an actor’s director. To me, it’s all just storytelling. First, the screenplay is the DNA of the whole thing. It’s in the writing that I decide: Where do I want to locate the audience’s relationship to the story? For Ali, I wanted them to get as intimate with Ali as they could. If I couldn’t do that, it wouldn’t be worth doing. That point of view affects the conception of how you shoot the film. To get a yield from any given scene, it’s got to be clear about what state, what condition the audience should be in. It’s more organic and holistic than just ‘visual style.’ ”
Still, Mann’s visual expressionisms—from eccentric focal decisions to the mad chaos of the long, relentless fight scenes in Ali—are what make the film hum more resonantly than your average pop-cult biopic. “Imbalance is a tool,” Mann acknowledges without getting too specific. “Disorientation, irresolution. And negative space: shooting Ali in a room or running [in Zaire] and pulling the focus on what’s behind him or around him. That way, I could pre-establish the political context of the moment there, by focusing on the Lumumba mural.” The boxing matches in particular used a shotgun spray of visual modes: “We had a head cam, a glove cam, a waist cam—but we didn’t end up using any of them. I did use a little video camera about the size of a matchbook, so I could get in there intimately.”
Like most mainstream directors, Mann prefers to retarget press discussions about his procedures and approach toward the subject at hand: “Ali was a character in a story of his own making. He had this amazing transaction with the public: He gave to them, and they gave back. He related to people in a way I’ve never seen in anyone before. You can’t fake it.” Mann’s right, but that didn’t stop him and Will Smith from trying; Ali is itself a familiar kind of masquerading Hollywood shuffle, elevated by Mann’s unpredictable imagery. You can only hope that Mann will someday locate material that’s as original as his filmmaking. Kiss Me Deadly? “Ha! Maybe, someday.”