Saturday, April 14, 2007

When did Peter Berg become a better filmmaker than Michael Mann?

An intentionally inflammatory headline, and not entirely accurate, but it’s worth exploring if only in the “what have you done for me lately” vein. At 43, Berg is a relatively young man to have already directed four features, all the more impressive when you consider he worked as a successful character-actor for almost ten years before making 1998’s sophomoric, but loved in some circles, “dark comedy” Very Bad Things. Since then Berg directed the underrated The Rundown which has the dubious distinction of being the only film in history where The Rock and Arnold Schwarzenegger share screen time together and the well-liked Friday Night Lights which has spawned a critically adored television show that he also executive produces.

An impressive start to what should prove to be a long and fruitful journeyman director’s career and yet the film that may ultimately prove to be the most important harbinger to his career up till now is 2004’s Collateral, a film where Berg remained entirely in front of the camera (he played Mark Ruffalo’s straight-laced cop buddy). It was at some point during this production that Collateral director-producer Michael Mann entrusted Berg to take over the reins of a project he’d been eye-balling, staying on as a producer and securing the budget and enormous amount of resources required to bring this story to the screen.

In many ways, The Kingdom is the film Miami Vice should have been and will likely attract the audience members that avoided Vice when it’s released into theaters this fall. Berg has shaped this film very much in the mold that Mann has been cultivating for nearly thirty years and if the final results lacks the artistry and grandeur of Mann’s best films it’s a fair sacrifice for the level of immediacy and white-knuckle tension that The Kingdom generates.

Mann’s influence is impossible to miss in the film, from the casting of Jamie Foxx as another meticulous authority figure operating by his own code (he may ultimately become more associated with wearing sunglasses than even Nicholson) to the way the camera seems to burrow into its subjects, often framing the actors in tight close-up, just off-center and over the shoulder. The film—which to mine eyes, does an astounding job of faking the Arizona desert for Saudi Arabia—makes use of oppressive daylight, filming the majority of its bravura set-piece with the sun hanging unforgiving high in the sky. Predominantly shot on 35mm, as day gives way to night, Berg shoots exteriors in high definition video giving an otherworldly quality to what is already an alien terrain (when one American character asks for a description of their latest assignment they’re told it’s “a bit like Mars.”) Even Berg’s use of Explosions in the Sky as the temp music score (sadly to be replaced by a likely generic, Syriana-esque Danny Elfman composition) is the sort of boldly anachronistic choice that mirrors Mann’s own soundtrack selections ranging from Tangerine Dream in Thief to Elliot Goldenthal’s minimalist, percussion work on Heat.

The Kingdom values atmosphere and professionalism over clarity and character, at times flattening the incidental “how’s” and “why’s,” spitting out exposition as if it were a chore to be done with as quickly as possible. The result can be somewhat disorientating on the viewer, yet the absolutely confidence on display by both the performers and the filmmakers is somewhat assuaging. The overall sensation is one of understanding that we’re merely tagging along and the important thing is the people with badges and guns know what they’re doing.

Ultimately the film is about “the job” with emotion largely held in check save brief exchanges to mourn fallen comrades. Mann’s swooning romanticism and lyrical silent exchanges (in many ways, Mann has developed into the Wong Kar Wai of the loud guns and fast cars set) are absent here, and so too is anything in the way of character. With the exception of Foxx, the Americans in The Kingdom are afforded one personality-trait a piece (apart from their default setting of “badass”), which, in the case of poor Jennifer Garner, is the habit of sucking on lollypops during tense moments. The trailers for the film give off a distinct “C.S.I.: Riyadh” feel, which isn’t exactly wrong. The film is a procedural at heart, only one that’s thankfully less interested in forensics nuts and bolts, but rather in exploring the cultural divide between western interests and the Islamic Fundamentalism violently attempting change the course of the region.

What ultimately gives the film its strength, and perhaps pushes the film into a questionable moral quagmire, is the way it preys upon U.S. fears of the Middle-Eastern man. The film’s professionalism and discipline extends not only to the men and women of the FBI sent to investigate a horrific crime (the details of which I’m intentionally omitting), but to those fighting a holy war where there’s no concept of collateral damage or innocent bystanders. Like all great suspense films, the specter of violence looms as heavy as the violence itself, with seemingly every corner and darkened-doorway threatening to conceal a suicide bomber or rocket-propelled grenade launcher. The film plays upon our CNN-addicted culture, staging scenes meant to evoke everything from Al-Qaeda execution videos to Black Hawk Dawn. Bin-Laden is name-checked here as the film studiously tries to place its fictional events within a very real setting and context (there’s a fantastic opening credit sequence which serves as a USA Today style timeline to strife in the region). It’s the sort of film where you’ll probably find yourself leaning over to the person next to you and asking “did this really happen?”

Those who felt squeamish watching waves of minorities mowed-down in Black Hawk Down are likely to feel similar pangs of unease here. Although less jingoistic than the Ridley Scott film, The Kingdom poses the question “why do they hate us?” but isn’t especially interested in answers, rather it keeps the film’s Muslim assailants at arm’s length where they remain faceless boogie-men; appearing at will, attacking women and children with homemade bombs packed with C4 and nails. Accusations that the film is alarmist or even bigoted are not entirely without merit and may ultimately be its cross to bear.

The film gives Foxx’s character an indigenous police officer (Ashraf Barhom) with which he can butt heads and, ultimately, earn the respect and friendship of. The character is something of a screenwriter’s dream, forced to carry most of the film’s thematic weight while enduring withering glances and constant peril for being an Arab forced to aid and protect white infidels. Yet Barhom’s performance keeps the character from becoming a cipher, humanizing not only Foxx but the film itself. The character’s strong instincts and dedication to the work is the unifying factor which supersedes nationality and religion here; those who show up everyday and kickass without fuss are easily invited into Mann and Berg’s brotherhood.

As an action film The Kingdom is a curious beast. Too talky and observant to provide a rollercoaster ride for impatient genre fan, the film is however constructed around two elaborately staged action sequences at its book-ends that intensify slowly and steadily long before they snap in place like a bear-trap. What’s so remarkable though is how these sequences continue to build to terrifying heights, waiting for the audience to poke its head out after the smoke has presumably cleared, only to toss a hand grenade (literally) into the fox hole. It’s tempting to compare the latter of these two sequences to the now infamous “Battle of Bexhill” scene in Children of Men, matching that scene in duration and intensity (if not in ingenuity) as we follow our characters from a roadside attack to a courtyard RPG-evading shoot-out, to the claustrophobic confines of an apartment complex over the course of a break-neck twenty-five minutes.

Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, The Kingdom is ultimately too schematic for its own good. A subject this messy shouldn’t tie itself up in such neat little thematic bows and there’s far too much “Syd Field-ian”, screenwriting 101 on display. Berg’s direction possesses far too much tunnel-vision to abide by such clumsy attempts at social commentary and unifying image-systems (it’s the sort of film where we endure a mawkish scene early on involving an adult and a father-less young boy only for it to be repeated in the third act in a different setting). From a momentum stand-point, the film doesn't so much crest as it does run into a brick wall, perhaps a victim of its own success.

The film is ultimately less than the sum of its parts but oh what parts they are. Scheduled for release in late September, the film is, in many ways, the perfect fall film. Adult and exhilarating, The Kingdom is taut like a really good airport-bookstore novel. There are quibbles to be found but they’re secondary to the realization that you’ve just dug your nails into the palm of your hand or that the air has slowly crept out of you lungs because you’re too tense to breathe. More importantly, it announces the arrival of Berg as an upper-echelon filmmaker who can operate comfortably on a large scale. Berg may only be emulating Michael Mann’s worldview here but, in essence, he’s re-appropriated it and stripped it down to only its most essential elements.


NOTE: This is an early review of a work-in-progress. As a filmmaker, I respect the test-screening process as an important tool and, in general, believe an artist should be allowed to complete a piece of work before it’s appraised. I publish this review then as a rare breach of this agreement because I feel a) no one’s really going to care about a crappy upstart blog and b) what I’ve written is so overwhelming positive and effusive with praise for the film that it can only benefit from me banging the drum. This is what you call semantics.


Matt Zoller Seitz said...

AD: "In many ways, The Kingdom is the film Miami Vice should have been and will likely attract the audience members that avoided Vice when it’s released into theaters this fall."

Predictably, I'm suspicious of this claim, but hey, I haven't seen "The Kingdom" and I'm a huge "Miami Vice" booster.

I agree with you that Berg is a sharp, entertaining and often unexpectedly serious professional director (in addition to being an oddball leading man I'm almost always glad to see). I haven't seen any evidence yet that Berg has the kind of searching, pretentiousness-risking, cosmic consciousness that puts Mann in the ranks of significant, as opposed to merely professional, directors. Is it possible that Mann bowed out of directing this one because after "Vice," a current events-derived but otherwise relatively straightforward action-adventure wasn't something that really tickled his fancy?

Justin said...

I don't think they're technically "minorities" in Mogadishu.

Anonymous said...

Until Hollywood makes a movie from the point-of-view of an Iraqi citizen (which it won't be doing anytime soon, if ever), I won't be seeing The Kingdom, In the Valley of Elah, Redcated, or any of the other trendy war films that are about to inundate the movie theaters of America. It's all propaganda, just another errand that the suits in Beverly Hills are running for the Defense Department. I don't care how sensitive or empathetic these films claim to be, they still have American heroes as the main characters, and as far as I'm concerned, there are no American heroes in Iraq, because we invaded an country full of innocent civilians, made them fight for their homeland, and now call them terrorists for doing the very thing that all us are taught to do, which is defend our home and our families from invaders. The only movie I have seen that even comes close to approaching the war in any kind of honest way was David Ayers' Harsh Times. But that is beside the point. The point is this: Not only does America get to do what it wants with who it wants, it then has the audacity to only accept its own version of what happened.

Joseph B. said...

That's sad to hear that the soundtrack by Explosions In the Sky may be replaced. They're an amazing band who produced a phenomenal soundtrack to Berg's "Friday Night Lights". All 4 of their released cd's are must owns- a band whose music builds and builds to melodic eruptions. Great stuff.

Austintation said...

I'm with Matt here--> "a current events-derived but otherwise relatively straightforward action-adventure wasn't something that really tickled his fancy"

And if anything if we're going by the "what have you done for me lately?" logic, Mann beats just about everybody.

Andrew Dignan said...

I started posting a response over at your place Matt, but fuck it, I'll bring the battle home.

First of all I'm amused someone found this a good 5 months after I posted it. The timing is odd to say the least as no one here's even seen the film so it's more responding to the hyperbolic title which I have to confess was my intended response. As I went on to explain, Berg's really more of a journeyman and will never hit the artistic heights that Mann has but at the same time there's an efficiency and lack of self-importance to his storytelling style which serves him really well. Sometimes you just want a genre film to feel like a genre film w/out the Gregorian monks chanting and the elegiac 2 min-long shots of boats disappearing over the horizon. Berg doesn't swing for the fences like Mann but at the same time he's less prone to embarrass himself with the overdone bombast that's starting to really rub me raw in the latter's work.

And Matt, as one of the biggest MV boosters I know, your suspicion doesn't surprise me but the film's got hit written all over it. They're screening the film with incredible volume out here and have been all summer long. The studio took a bath on MV and I personally feel it was for a lot of the reasons you love the film. This is much closer to Collateral-Mann: very streamlined, very on-task, almost no room for digression. Some will find the film lacking for exactly those reasons but I think the adult movie going crowd (Christ, do those people exist anymore) will really respond to it when it's released late next month.

Anonymous: Never gonna happen. At least not without some critical distance or using another war as a surrogate. Kingdom isn't an Iraq story although it gets at a lot of the uneasy tension between the U.S. and the Arab world found in films like Syriana. The investigating team in the film could be seen as "foreign invaders" and we're repeatedly told they don't belong there but the film is really procedural first, message film second.

I've seen Elah (there's an entry about it from back in June if you care), it definitely paints a more critical (and direct) picture of US troops in Iraq but that's more of a touchy feely, rotting from within, looking at what this conflict is doing to our boys approach with the Iraqi people in the film's flashbacks more or less props to explain how wrong things have gone.

Matt Zoller Seitz said...

Andrew: Thanks for the response. I stumbled across this quite by accident and thought it was worth a link, for the film itself and for the headline. You got to this subject way, way ahead of the curve, and I'm of the opinion that a good piece is a good piece regardless of the time stamp. (I recently linked to a MovieMaker interview with John Frankenheimer that was 11 years old!) If anything, this piece is more timely because we're getting nearer the actual release date.

Austintation said...

"but at the same time he's less prone to embarrass himself [than Mann] with the overdone bombast that's starting to really rub me raw in the latter's work."


Andrew Dignan said...


Gladly. Mann walks a line of self-parody so closely I'm waiting for SNL to catch on and release one of You-Tube ready skits where Andy Samberg walks around intoning existential inflections, caressing a handgun while the camera stalks him from behind and the rock song on the soundtrack turns up to 11. And I say this as someone who's a fan of the majority of his work. By and large though, these days I'm responding more and more to his work that forces him out of his techno-gun-fetish milieu (I wonder if it's still in him to make another film along the lines of Last of the Mohicans) as I'm finding his comfort zone mighty dull these days.

I feel like Berg, with this film, is a quick student and picks up on Mann's mercenary tendencies. In The Kingdom, Mann's aggressive professionalism serves as a guardrail for the story and everything that doesn't cling to it falls out the other-side after a good shaking. No extraneous subplots about spouses/girlfriends who just can't understand the internal drive of being a driven man, no pseudo-Nietzsche dialogue, no framing your alpha-male lead as though he were Zeus coming down from Mt. Olympus to walk amongst mere mortals. And so on...

Like I said, I consider myself a fan of Mann's work and it's a testament to his cinematic voice that it's so readily identifiable and easy to mock (you could say the same thing about Lynch, Fellini, Bergman, etc...) but I'm almost at the point where I want to say enough is enough.

Austintation said...

Funny, because as a film Miami Vice is probably the least clinical thing he’s ever done—if that’s what you’re suggesting by the thinning line between artistic identification and accomplishment. And I’m not to suggest that its absence of self-parody is that it is so far removed from reaching his career goal of using genre movies as vehicles for his career obsessions, but like Hithcock’s ‘Vertigo’ he ups the ante by doing things that he never was quite ready for 10-15 years ago, IMHO.

So I suppose I can’t really dig into criticizing him for “aggressive professionalism” or having “extraneous subplots” (???) because looking back most of his career seems to be building up to a a lot of what he’s finally caught on to lately. I apologize for the brevity of this response, but I really don’t think I was given much to work with other than just saying that others don’t think what he’s doing as of late is a bad thing. Furthermore, I haven’t seen The Kingdom but it would take a whole fucking lot to get me conceding that Mann has an accurate adversary.

Andrew Dignan said...

All I can say in response is that you and I view Miami Vice *very* differently as I find it so hollow at its center yet insufferably cluttered around the margins with toys (fast cars, loud guns, exotic women) and ciphers posturing for the camera my only possible response was clinical detachment.

I recognize this all stems from a mention at the House Next Door, where sonnets have been written about the lyrical beauty of the film's Mojito-fueled dance numbers and they'll defend to their dying breath Gong Li' Hooked on Phonics-esque performance, but I found the film so totally consumed with go-fast boats and jet planes and art deco that it scarcely found room for a living, breathing human emotion or for that matter a reason for existing beyond serving as a forum for the aforementioned trinkets.

I also have no desire to get into a game of "others don't think what he's doing is bad" because there's a mountain of evidence on both sides. The film has many defenders. Certainly amongst the House/Slant contingent. The detractors are omnipresent as well. Let's just limit this to you dug the film and I didn't.

"Furthermore, I haven’t seen The Kingdom but it would take a whole fucking lot to get me conceding that Mann has an accurate adversary."

This isn't Jordan vs. Bird. We're not lining up box scores here. I gave the piece an inflammatory title that allowed me to muse about one filmmaker temporarily taking the torch from another by virtue of their collaboration together and the fact that they both took a whack at (on the surface) similar material. I feel in this particular instance, Berg made something more interesting and (I suspect I'll be proven correct in a month's time) something more accessible. I don't see that as being a dirty word.

But you can't really tell me why this isn't so because, as you said, you haven't seen The Kingdom so you're essentially swinging in the dark. Come back in a month and half, after you've seen the film, and tell me why you think I'm wrong. In the meantime, what exactly are you arguing against other than your belief that Mann is completely infallible?

Austintation said...

Ah, well firstly just to clear a few things up:

I’m not attempting to speak against The Kingdom’s [supposed] worthiness nor suggesting that my introspection in to Mann’s work can compensate for my lack of seeing the other work. When I suggested the skepticism of Berg’s work holding up to Mann’s masterpiece, I simply was stating the obvious: Miami Vice is in my top 20, and 1/100+ films I see are even worthy of such an inclusion. I really don’t think the infallibility of the Mann should obligatorily illuminated within another person’s vision/execution but rather should be detailed through the self-containment of Mann’s piece/work. I apologize if I’ve somehow derailed this argument to a form of chicanery, but I assure you my intention was not to suggest any form of preconception holds the equal weight of an actual experience (or viewing). Right?
Of course, I’m free to discuss Miami Vice and my previous post simply asserted that I can’t really any form of discernable criticism other than “I didn’t like it.” But that’s what you want, right? Humorously, I haven’t even read the THND review nor do I ever plan to—alright, maybe I will after you suggested that Mojito affection…maybe. But I simply came on to your blog (which is great, btw) just to inquire more about your criticisms of Miami Vice than to overextend my love for the film as an accurate arbiter for one I haven’t seen. God, I hope I didn’t suggest that! ;)

p.s. if you ever want to expand on those MV criticisms--which interest me--feel free to do so.

Andrew Dignan said...

You should definitely comb the archives of the House (especially circa July and August of '06), I suspect you'll find many a kindred spirit w/r/t Vice. Frankly, I simply assumed you were swept in w/ the wave of visitors from Matt's posting.

As for myself I'm more or less through discussing the film (Vice that is) in any real length. I've seen the film 3 times and I've reached the "never again" threshold. The film will never be what I need it to be and what it is I find endlessly tedious. I suspect it's a personal aesthetics issue as I'm a more steak, less garnish sort of guy. A fair amount of bloat and bombast is par for the course in Mann's films (and often is part of his charm) but I've always been able to connect on some spiritual level with his protagonists but not with Vice which, to mine eyes, felt a little bit too much like little boys playing big boys with loud toys. Couldn't invest myself in the film or its characters, not for a second. And, call me a philistine, but I thought the digital photography was horrid (and that's from someone who loved what Cameron/Beebe did w. Collateral). Others obviously feel differently.

Wasn't trying to impugn your right to defend Vice. Skepticism is a fair response, especially considering the standings of both filmmakers. I simply thought I was detecting blind loyalty which I always find dangerous anytime you're talking about something as volatile and spontaneous as art. Masters make mis-steps and people refusing to call out sacred cows makes for a fairly bland discussion. If that's not the case then I do apologize.

Mann's legacy is secure, especially amongst hardcore Cineastes, I just wonder (aloud) if it might not be time to take a step back and assess where he wants to take his career. I know commerce is better left to bankers and the pages of Variety but MV is one of the most costly misfires of the past few years and I'd like to see Mann able to continue making films on whatever subject he desires. I think a lot of the elements that fans of the film respond to the most are exactly the factors that alienated a lot of audience members so he may need to decide which masters he wants heed the call of.

We're free to bat this back and forth as many times as you like but to be honest I don't have any real passion for the film and I suspect we've reached an impasse as far as modifying one another's opinions of the film.

Glad you enjoy the blog though.

Austintation said...

Firstly, I found THND simply through linkage in another user’s blog. It mildly interests me, but I honestly can’t say I have the ability to distinguish contributors…sorry. With Vice I always felt that getting caught up on the characterizations was pointless; I actually appreciate the distances he took in the narrative, the subconscious glances of Sonny over the straight-talking didacticism of Heat, the rigid economy of the whole film’s pacing and observations, etc. It really felt like a culmination of what he’s been working for, and this is coming from somebody who’s not a gigantic Mann fan outside of it.

As for the future of Mann’s aesthetical/commercial contribution, I’m going to say its still safe. He’s still an outstanding producer and I’m fairly certain with The Few he’ll take a few steps back and reinstate a few things that were disturbed by the last feature—which if you think about it is unfairly maligned in terms of productions vs. gross failure because of the various complications of the production process. Whatever.

Anyway, I appreciate the discussion (was there one?) we’ve had regarding this film and will certainly get back to you when I see the vastly inf..superior Kingdom/

TuckPendleton said...

Came by while playing catch up on HOTD. Enjoyed the article and the debate in the comments.

I would only add that I think it's a little too early to say what Berg will or will not become, based on 4 features. As it stands, I think he's already distinguished himself as being far beyond a "journeyman director" which is a title I reserve for the Howard Deutches and Dennis Dugans of the world.

And, slightly unrelated, your mention of Jordan vs. Bird made me fondly recall the many hours I spent on the Apple IIe playing Dr. J vs. Bird...

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Anonymous said...

Kingdom is an offensive, racist, caricatural, war mongering, hoo-ra piece of travesty. Miami Vice is a masterpiece.