"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, April 24, 2015


By the mid-1980s, the American public was finally coming to terms with the effects of their involvement in the Vietnam War. Oliver Stone’s film Platoon (1986) opened the popular culture floodgates and soon a cottage industry of war-related material was everywhere, from Time-Life books to television shows to comic books. Hollywood also capitalized on the renewed fascination with the war and the people that fought in it by releasing films that were either set in Vietnam during the war or stateside in present time with returning soldiers still coping with the trauma of being over there. One of the best examples of the latter was a small, independent film entitled Jacknife (1989) starring Robert De Niro, Ed Harris and Kathy Baker. Adapted from the play Strange Snow by its playwright, Stephen Metcalfe, the film is a smartly-written, well-acted character study about people trying to put their lives back together while living with unresolved issues.

One day, Joseph “Megs” Megessey (Robert De Niro) shows up unannounced to take his friend Dave Flannigan (Ed Harris) out to the opening day of fishing. He lives with his sister Martha (Kathy Baker) who’s understandably surprised and upset to be woken up by a strange man pounding on her front door. Megs quickly disarms her with his easy-going charm and pretty soon they’re rousing Dave out of bed, much to his chagrin. He’s a raging alcoholic and has a typical antagonistic sibling relationship with Martha.

These early scenes are very well-played by the three actors as they tell us a lot about their respective characters and the dynamic between them. Robert De Niro plays Megs as an enthusiastic whirlwind of upbeat energy while in sharp contrast Harris’ portrays Dave as a bitter man who drinks to suppress deep-rooted anger and pain. Kathy Baker plays Martha as a somewhat reserved woman who is bemused by Megs’ gregarious nature.

Even though Dave claims that Megs is not his friend, they are bonded for life thanks to their experiences fighting together in the Vietnam War, which saw them both get wounded while their best friend Bobby (Tom Isbell) was killed – something that continues to haunt the two men. Dave drinks to forget and just wants to be left alone while Megs decides to try and reach him and in doing so maybe help himself in the process. Jacknife explores how Megs and Dave’s tenuous friendship is threatened by the former’s growing romantic interest in Martha.

Ed Harris has always been willing to disappear into the characters he plays with little concern for vanity and this film is no exception. We first meet Dave passed out in bed, sleeping off last night’s drinking binge. He’s a balding unshaven mess and the actor isn’t afraid to show his character’s flaws while also hinting at early on why Dave is such an unpleasant man. Harris suggests a deep reservoir of guilt and regrets that exists within Dave by the way he carries himself and acts towards Martha and Megs. With the former there is a long-standing antagonistic relationship common with siblings but she doesn’t understand his behavior because he refuses to talk to her about his experiences in Vietnam. With the latter, Dave shares a special bond that only comes with being in life and death situations with someone and they are able to talk about the war.

Robert De Niro played a Vietnam War veteran in The Deer Hunter (1978), but while that character was much more restrained, internalizing his feelings, Megs in Jacknife is the polar opposite. He is a chatty guy who is unfailingly polite and an optimist but De Niro’s performance suggests that this covers up a lot of pain. Unlike Dave, he’s trying to deal with it, but both men are wracked with survivor’s guilt, haunted by their experiences during the war. It is great to see two incredibly skilled actors like De Niro and Harris play off each other as Megs tries to reach Dave. This is done gradually over the course of the film in nice moments like when Megs encourages Dave to join in a game of basketball with fellow truck drivers.

Kathy Baker plays an intelligent, independent woman who has been taking care of her brother for so long that she has no life of her own and it takes Megs’ arrival to break her daily routine. Her role may not be as flashy as De Niro’s or Harris’ but she more than holds her own with them. Megs and Martha’s relationship has a refreshing reciprocal nature as he awakens feelings in her that have been dormant for some time and she helps him heal emotionally, providing something that is lacking from his life.

Jacknife received generally positive notices from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “Jacknife redeems it in the specifics of the performances. De Niro, Harris and Baker seem to be oblivious to the ‘message,’ and lose themselves in the personalities of their characters. And so the movie works.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Thomas called it, “admirable,” and “affecting.” The Washington Post’s Desson Howe wrote, “But where Jacknife is patronizing, it’s also openhandedly compassionate; where it falls into trite, Baker, De Niro and Harris (doing what he can with a one-note role) pick it up and dust it off.” However, in her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “But the actors, good as they are, are becalmed by the film’s ponderous way of unwrapping layer after layer of Megs’s and Dave’s Vietnam experience until the expected catharsis has been achieved.”

Jacknife is a wonderfully understated slice-of-life character study about damaged people trying to heal wounds that run deep under the surface. David Jones’ direction is straightforward so that the focus is on the excellent performances and Metcalfe’s well-written screenplay. The only flaw is the score by Bruce Broughton, which is obvious and manipulative, often telling us how we should feel during a given scene. Fortunately, the rest of the film is so strong that this weak element doesn’t detract from everything else.

Jacknife is an important film in the sense that it shows the collateral damage created by war. Young men are sent off into battle and either come back dead or wounded – either emotionally, physically or both. It is the kind of damage that can take a lifetime to heal. Some try to outrun it or numb the pain with alcohol and drugs. This film suggests that only by confronting one’s demons can you have a chance at conquering them. The healing process is not easy and often it takes the support others to get through it. Jacknife is about the importance of human connection, being there for others during the best and worst of times. It’s an honest depiction of the shattered lives created by war that doesn’t resort to cheap sentimentality and for that it should be commended.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Snake Eyes

In the 1990s, filmmaker Brian De Palma struggled between making expensive, high profile failures like The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) and pushing through personal projects like Raising Cain (1992) and commercial triumphs like Mission: Impossible (1996). Fresh from the success of the latter film, he rounded out the decade with conspiracy thriller Snake Eyes (1998) starring Nicolas Cage. De Palma employed his trademark stylistic bag of tricks to deliver a never dull thriller that was ultimately marred by a weak ending (infamously changed from the original) leaving most critics cold. The film was a modest commercial success and summed up the filmmaker’s performance during the ‘90s as it attempted to balance his personal touches with a commercial sensibility with uneven results.

Rick Santoro (Nicolas Cage) is a flashy, flamboyant, and very corrupt Atlantic City cop who attends a big-ticket prizefight where he meets Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise), a United States Navy Commander and his straight-laced best friend from childhood. Dunne is in charge of security for Secretary of Defense Charles Kirkland (Joel Fabiani). During the course of the fight Kirkland is subsequently shot and killed by an assassin with Santoro as a key witness to the incident.

As Santoro investigates the murder he begins to realize that there was a lot more going on during the fight than he initially thought. Who was the beautiful redhead (Jayne Heitmeyer) sitting by herself? What happened to the woman (Carla Gugino) dressed in white talking to Kirkland just before he was shot? Why did the supposedly invincible champ (Stan Shaw) lose the fight so easily? The rest of the film follows Santoro's attempts to answer these questions and piece everything together.

Nicolas Cage clearly relishes the role as it allows him to cut loose and have fun with the character. This performance sees him reverting back to his old manic self that you can see bouncing through films like Raising Arizona (1987) or Wild at Heart (1990). Cage seems to be gleefully going over the top in many of the early scenes and it suits his egotistical cop character. Rick’s personality is as ostentatious as his tacky attire. Cage also isn't afraid to play a character that, initially, isn't that nice of guy. He's a self-serving cop only out for himself. He's not your traditional hero. As Rick’s investigation continues, however, and he realizes that there is more going on, Cage modulates his performance as his character wises up and tones down the flash as Rick applies skills he hasn’t used in ages. Cage’s character becomes much more interesting as his life gets increasingly complicated.

Kevin is everything that Rick is not – restrained and responsible. We soon learn that this is all an elaborate façade while with Rick what you see is what you get. Gary Sinise is excellent as the intense Navy Commander that seems too good to be true. That’s because he is and the actor plays an unreliable witness very well. Initially, we don’t have any reason to doubt him but after Rick questions Kevin De Palma audaciously reveals his real agenda so that we now know more than Rick does and spend the rest of the film watching him trying to figure it out. The scenes between Cage and Sinise are a lot of fun to watch as we see two veteran actors play so well of each other, especially as more revelations come to light.

De Palma's choice in actresses with a captivating presence is readily evident in his casting of Carla Gugino as the alluring key figure in the mystery and the only voice of reason in the film – a whistleblower trying to do the right thing. Sadly, she’s largely wasted in a role that amounts to nothing more than relaying expositional dialogue and then reduced to a damsel in distress.

Snake Eyes is a great looking film. De Palma is in fine form and he's got longtime cinematographer Stephen H. Burum (The Untouchables) behind the camera. This makes for a visually interesting film as Burum employs De Palma’s entire bag of tricks: split screens, unusual P.O.V. shots, skewed angles, and starts things off with a bravura 10+minute-long take with no cuts that introduces all of the major characters and the world they inhabit. De Palma does it all while following Rick, which provides all kinds of insights into that man – what he does, his relationship to others and his larger than life personality. It gives Cage a chance to show off, which he does in typical flashy fashion. This long take also forces us to pay attention to not just the people Rick interacts with but also the background details. It is important to what happens later on. This opening sequence also establishes the most crucial relationship in the film – the one between Rick and Kevin, which is increasingly put to the test.

David Koepp’s screenplay presents the Kirkland assassination Rashomon-style as we see it repeatedly from the point-of-view of key figures so that we get more pieces of the puzzle, figuring it out as Rick does. It’s an interesting way to present a thriller of this kind and De Palma and Koepp keep things together for the most part, but one character delivers a monologue near the end of the film that seems like something a Bond villain would spout. For the most part, the director manages to keep us engaged after the show-stopping first ten minutes, but loses it at the film’s climax, which strains credulity.

Initially, Brian De Palma had Al Pacino in mind to play Rick Santoro with an older man-young man dynamic with the Kevin Dunne role. However, Pacino had just done that with Donnie Brasco (1997) and was hesitant to repeat himself. Then, Gary Sinise became available and De Palma went with him and Nicolas Cage, changing the dynamic to characters that were the same age. Sinise worked with De Palma, developing his character’s backstory and motivation for what he was doing while the director had Cage watch screwball comedies because he wanted the actor to say his dialogue at “that Howard Hawks-like speed.” Cage also came up with his character’s flashy attire.

De Palma decided to have the long take at the beginning of the film because he wanted to “show the whole universe that the Nick Cage character was in. I wanted to show HIS world, I wanted to show it really fast, and I wanted to show it whole, in an exciting venue.” He found shooting the actual sequence “akin to a high-wire act: you can get very exhilarated trying to pull it off. It’s also very energizing for the actors. There is a kind of excitement in their performance that you don’t get when you start shooting in master shots, then medium shots, then close-ups.” The opening tracking shot was actually compromised of four SteadiCam shots because 20-minute camera magazines did not exist.

Initially, De Palma had the idea that the ending was to involve Deus ex machine: “we were dealing with such a corrupt world that the only way to solve the problem is to have a hurricane come through and wipe it all away.” Test screening audiences did not like it and so De Palma shot another ending, “which I don’t think is as effective.” Screenwriter David Koepp remembers that in the original ending Rick saved Kevin but test audiences wanted the bad guy to get his comeuppance.

Snake Eyes received mostly mixed to negative reviews. Roger Ebert gave it out one out of four stars and wrote, “Then comes an ending so improbable it seems to have been fashioned as a film school exercise: Find the Mistakes in This Scene.” In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote, “If nothing else in Snake Eyes matches the opening sequence in adrenaline-pumping excitement, the movie never quite fizzles. It just gets sillier and more exaggerated in the self-parodying ways Mr. De Palma’s movies often do.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “D” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “The camera choreography is exquisite, but De Palma is so entranced with staging his purplish voyeuristic set pieces that we can hardly believe a minute of what we’re seeing. He’s become the masturbator of suspense.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan wrote, “Both Koepp’s script and De Palma’s directing style encourage the actors to be over-emphatic, and macho posturing is high on the list of the film’s weaknesses.” Finally, in his review for the New York Observer, Andrew Sarris wrote, “Mr. De Palma and his collaborators have told a comparatively simple story with a very rich and resourceful mise en scene. This sort of mastery has become so rare in today’s mainstream movies that I find myself more bewitched and beguiled than perhaps I should be.”

Ever the consummate professional, De Palma orchestrates key sequences for maximum impact as he ratchets up the tension by placing certain characters in dangerous situations that they narrowly escape. At times, Snake Eyes seems like a film of two minds. On one hand, it wants to have the stylistic flourishes of De Palma’s more personal work while fulfilling the generic conventions of a thriller. That being said, the film is pure eye candy thanks to Burum’s virtuoso camerawork, which does most of the heavy lifting as does Cage’s deliciously manic performance. Snake Eyes may lack the depth of other De Palma films, like Blow Out (1981), but he seems content to deliver an entertaining thriller utilizing every stylistic trick in his impressive arsenal with the skill of a master filmmaker. The film may lack any kind of real substance but it is wonderful visual eye candy. There’s something enjoyable about letting an expert craftsman like De Palma manipulate us because he does it so well.


Behar, Henri. “Brian De Palma on Snake Eyes.” Film Scouts. August 1998.

Jones, Wil. “David Koepp Interview: Mortdecai, Jurassic Park, Indy 4.” Den of Geek! January 23, 2015.

Taylor, Drew. “Brian De Palma Talks Passion, Digital vs. Film, Psychosexual Thrillers and the Abandoned Ending of Snake Eyes.” The Playlist. July 30, 2013.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Clear and Present Danger

No stranger to movie franchises, it came as no surprise when Harrison Ford replaced Alec Baldwin as Jack Ryan in the popular adaptations of Tom Clancy’s best-selling novels with Patriot Games (1992), the follow-up to The Hunt for Red October (1990). Ford slipped effortlessly into the role and made it his own. The result was a critical and commercial success despite Clancy’s disdain for how much the film diluted his novel. The actor reprised the role again two years later with Clear and Present Danger (1994), which was the most ambitious Ryan film at that time, expanding the scale and scope significantly while also immersing the character in morally murky waters as he became embroiled in the United States’ covert war on Colombian drug lords. The end result is an intriguing political thriller that takes a fascinatingly complex look at geopolitics while still including the slam-bang action heroics we’ve come to expect from these kinds of films.

When a close friend and his family of the President of the United States (Donald Moffat) is killed by drug traffickers because of his ties to a drug cartel, CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Harrison Ford) is assigned to investigate. The President, clearly frustrated by the rise of the cartels in Latin America, indirectly gives his National Security Advisor James Cutter (Harris Yulin) unofficial permission to kill the men responsible.

Meanwhile, Ernesto Escobedo (Miguel Sandoval), leader of the Cali cartel, and the man who ordered the hit on the President’s friend, is advised by his trusted counsel Felix Cortez (Joaquim de Almeida) to calm down and be careful as the U.S. might retaliate. I like that Escobedo is a shrewd drug lord ruled by his emotions but smart enough to surround himself with intelligent people like Cortez who knows when to speak up and say things his boss might not want to hear and when to keep quiet, but only when it serves his own agenda. Joaquim de Almeida plays him with a cunning intelligence and in several scenes you can see his character thinking – either processing something he has just seen or learned or contemplating a future action much like an excellent chess player.

After his superior, Vice Admiral Jim Greer (James Earl Jones), is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Ryan is appointed Deputy Director of Intelligence. This doesn’t sit well with Bob Ritter (Henry Czerny), CIA Director of Operations and Cutter’s enforcer. The two men view Ryan as a “boy scout” and decide to intentionally leave him out of the loop in regards to the covert actions they plan to take against the cartels. Harris Yulin and Henry Czerny are excellent in these early scenes, exuding icy menace as men orchestrating very secretive operations on a need-to-know basis and this does not include Ryan. Czerny, in particular, excels at a no-nonsense look, going toe-to-toe with and holding his own with Ford in a confrontation that crackles with intensity. Other filmmakers in Hollywood must’ve noticed Czerny’s considerable gravitas as he would go on to give Tom Cruise a hard time in Mission: Impossible (1996).

Ritter begins to put things in motion, assembling a black-operations team led by John Clark (Willem Dafoe) that inserts itself in Colombia on search-and-destroy missions. Ryan’s life becomes complicated when the President sends him to Bogota, Colombia to find a concrete connection between his friend and the drug cartels. At Greer’s suggestion, Ryan meets with Clark in a nice little scene as Willem Dafoe presents a smiling façade but it is clear that he’s feeling Ryan out, getting a sense of how much he knows (or doesn’t). He plays a rather enigmatic character initially – we’re not sure which side he’s on and this isn’t clear until the film’s last act. For fans of acting, there is a certain thrill seeing Ford and Dafoe team-up later on. They have very different acting styles and so it is interesting to see them play off each other as the fish-out-of-water Ryan is schooled by the veteran field op Clark. Watching Dafoe in this film it’s almost as if his sergeant character from Platoon (1986) somehow managed to survive certain death and become a black-op for the U.S. government as a way of dealing with his disillusionment over the Vietnam War.

Harrison Ford turns in another solid, dependable performance playing what appears to be the last honest man in Washington, D.C. His storyline is an engrossing whodunit only that we know the answer and the enjoyment comes from watching Ryan gradually figure things out. Once he does, Ryan finds himself stuck in a moral quagmire that puts his black and white view of right and wrong to the test. Once Ford lets his moral outrage flag fly free, he ups the intensity factor exponentially, starting with a fiery confrontation with Czerny’s smug bureaucrat and ending with an even more bombastic confrontation with the President. I remember at the time the film came out that only Ford could get away with chewing out the President and then a few years later he played him in Air Force One (1997).

As he did with Patriot Games, director Phillip Noyce shows a deft hand with the action sequences as evident in the way he gradually ramps up our anticipation of a motorcade ambush with Ryan and other U.S. government officials. Noyce masterfully orchestrates the build-up and then immerses us in the chaos of the attack as explosions surround Ryan’s vehicle forcing him to take charge. There is a real sense of danger and one feels Ryan’s life is in serious danger as people around him die, including a colleague close to him, which makes it personal.

Tom Clancy was never completely thrilled with the adaptations of his novels, conceding that with The Hunt for Red October, “they didn’t screw it up too much,” and badmouthing Patriot Games in the press, which included saying that Harrison Ford was too old to play Jack Ryan. While that film performed well at the box office, it didn’t do as well as Red October domestically. It did well enough, however, for Paramount Pictures to put Clear and Present Danger in production. After making Games, director Phillip Noyce vowed never to do another Ryan film, but relented after reading Clancy’s novel.

John Milius, a right-wing friend of Clancy’s, was brought in to write the screenplay while Games was being made. By his account, Clancy approved of his draft because “I was very faithful to his book,” and that was the problem. In the book, Ryan hardly appears in the first half of the story and spends most of his time in an office while a squad of soldiers takes care of most of the action.

In March 1992, Paramount hired Red October and Games co-screenwriter Donald Stewart to re-write Milius’ script so that Ryan was front and center. This convinced Ford to sign on to the project. Not surprisingly, Clancy was not happy with Stewart’s work, telling the Washington Post that he thought it was “really awful.” He then faxed a series of memos to the production team with major and minor criticisms. He wrote, “Clear and Present Danger was the No. 1 best-selling novel of the 1980s. One might conclude that the novel’s basic story line had some quality to it. Why, then, has nearly every aspect of the book been tossed away?” Ford countered, “You do things when you’re typing that you would never do if you had to fucking stand there and deliver [the lines].”

That being said, Ford and Noyce were still not satisfied with Stewart’s work and brought in Steven Zaillian, who co-wrote Games, to make the script more faithful to the book while giving Ryan more screen-time, which makes about as much sense as it sounds. Ford also wanted the final scene changed, making it less ambiguous than it was in the book. The actor said, “It’s hard to make an ambiguous ending to a two-hour movie. The audience is not normally satisfied [with that].” Clancy and Milius were not thrilled with this change. The latter, however, did make a special deal with the producers to advise the film’s action sequences, in particular, the ambush of Ryan’s convoy in Bogota.

Once principal photography began, the production ran into several problems. Initially, the CIA and the Pentagon refused the production access to their equipment, which was important to the story, citing issues with the script. The filmmakers made the necessary alterations, which resulted in the military and the Pentagon granting full cooperation. They also received cooperation from the DEA, the FBI and the State Department. Some of the Washington, D.C. footage that was sent back to Los Angeles was damaged in an earthquake. When the production moved to Mexico, they arrived days before rebels started a revolt in the southern state of Chiapas. As a result, the government was hesitant to issue permits for the guns an explosives needed until two days before filming started.

The ambush sequence took eight weeks to prepare and the filmmakers used a specially fabricated street that ran the length of two football fields. While Ford downplayed the amount of stunts he did in the film, during this sequence he actually drove the “escape vehicle” backwards at 100 mph. Scheduled for five days, the production went over when it took eight days. A persistent fog plagued the final shooting location causing delays all the while Ford and Noyce argued over various aspects of the script, which was being rewritten on a daily basis. On top of all that, Ford was still recovering from a knee injury he sustained while filming The Fugitive (1993), which pushed all of the action sequences to the end of the shoot when everyone was tired. Finally, the scripted finale that involved an elaborate chase on the town’s rooftops that ended with a fight between Cortez and Ryan on top of a church was truncated to a helicopter rescue because they were so over schedule. Noyce said, “Certainly compared with Patriot Games, it was more stressful. It was harder to reach agreement on things.”

Clear and Present Danger was well received by critics at the time. In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin praised Henry Czerny’s performance: “Fidgety, intense, loaded with menace, he becomes the worthiest and most sinister of Ryan’s many adversaries in this story.” The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley called it “absorbing, if overlong … More cerebral dilemma than an action-packed adventure, the film explodes from time to time, but mostly takes place in offices.” In his review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle wrote, “the film is an examination of an America committed to power, not principle, and how that moral failing translates into individual failings at the very heights of government.” Entertainment Weekly, however, gave the film a “C+” rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “In its way, the clear and present danger of this pop production is that we are given permission to feel good about feeling cynical about government, and we are so grateful for the sermon that we forget we don’t quite buy how this movie got to this punchline in the first place.”

The first third of Clear and Present Danger is a top-notch political thriller as Noyce expertly introduces all the major players while juggling the two significant storylines: Ritter’s black-op and Ryan’s investigation into the murder of the President’s friend. It is interesting to see how the complexity of a mainstream film like Clear and Present Danger compares to the ones made in recent years. Even the very well made Jason Bourne films are relatively straightforward in comparison.

Noyce’s film takes the time to flesh out the motivations of both the U.S. government and the drug cartel, showing how deception on each side undermines their respective goals. While Cutter and Ritter wage their own secret war, unbeknownst to Ryan, Cortez responds in kind, framing Escobedo without his knowledge and our protagonist is caught in the middle. This tricky juggling act is pulled off expertly by a powerhouse team of screenwriters that include Steve Zaillian, John Milius and Donald E. Stewart. Clear and Present Danger has just the right mix of political intrigue complete with double crosses and action sequences full of white-knuckle intensity. It’s a thinking person’s political thriller chock full of moral complexity – something that was largely absent from future Jack Ryan films and most mainstream Hollywood movies of this kind.


Fretts, Bruce. “Harrison Ford Takes on Tom Clancy…Again.” Entertainment Weekly. August 19, 1994.

Pfeiffer, Lee and Michael Lewis. The Films of Harrison Ford. Citadel Press. 2002.

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Jericho Mile

After cutting his teeth on documentaries in the early 1970s, Michael Mann moved to Hollywood and planned “to make it big in ninety days,” but found that “for two years I couldn’t get arrested.” In the process of learning how to write screenplays over two years, he came to the attention of the Robert Lewin, who had been a screenwriter for popular television shows like Rawhide and Mission: Impossible and was now the story editor on Starsky and Hutch. Lewin taught him about story structure and had Mann working as an assistant story editor. He would end up writing the first four episodes of the show and it became a huge success.

His run on Starsky and Hutch led to a stint on the T.V. show, Police Story, which was run by playwright Liam O'Brien and included famous crime writer, Joseph Wambaugh (who wrote The Onion Field) as a contributor. Each episode was based on a real event, working with the policeman whose story it was based on. Mann "learned a lot about writing and about working with real guys." Working on Police Story continued Mann's fascination with journalism and performing detailed research on a given project.

Mann's writing received strong critical notices and was a great learning experience. The success from writing led to him directing an episode of Police Woman and an opportunity to develop his own weekly T.V. series, Vegas (1978). However, the network wanted to water down the series and Mann clashed with director Richard Lang over the direction that the show was to take so he left after writing the pilot.

Mann’s T.V. work brought him to the attention of producer Tim Zinnemann and actor Dustin Hoffman who hired him to adapt ex-convict Edward Bunker’s novel, No Beast So Fierce. Mann spent three months conducting first-hand research at Folsom State Penitentiary in California. His work would go uncredited and eventually be made into the gritty crime film, Straight Time (1978).

Mann's success in television gave him the confidence to ask ABC for a shot at directing a film. He set up a made-for-T.V. movie called Swan Song about a skier but the project was delayed when its star, David Soul, needed a year to recover from a spinal injury. The head of ABC television’s Movie of the Week sent Mann a prison-themed teleplay written by Patrick J. Nolan. Mann extensively rewrote it, incorporating his research from Folsom and the result was a made-for-TV movie called The Jericho Mile (1979).

The film opens with a montage of prison life in almost documentary fashion to an instrumental version of the Rolling Stones song “Sympathy for the Devil.” Mann really gives a flavor of the different kinds of prisoners and the gangs they belong to via a sports writer who interviews someone (Roger E. Mosley) from the Black Brotherhood and a Latino gang member who brags about his handball skills all the while Dr. D (Brian Dennehy), the leader of a white supremacist gang, deals drugs. Mann shows how these various gangs interact with each other with the fascination of an anthropologist. He immediately captures the sights and sounds of life on the yard and then takes us inside to show what life is like among the cellblocks.

The film’s protagonist is an inmate by the name of Larry “Rain” Murphy (Peter Strauss) who is serving a life term in Folsom for shooting and killing his father for raping his stepsister. He spends his yard time running laps. He lives a Spartan existence with no creature comforts – just plain white walls, which anticipates the protagonist in Mann’s later film, Blackhat (2015). Much like that character, Murphy even works out in his cell. His entire focus is on running.

In contrast, R.C. Stiles (Richard Lawson), the African-American man in the cell next to Murphy, has his walls covered with photographs of loved ones and receives in the mail one of his newborn baby girl. He’s gregarious and chatty while Murphy internalizes and says little. The next day, Murphy is out on the yard again, only this time the prison officials take an interest and discover that he is running close to a four-minute mile.

Like many Mann protagonists, Murphy has a single-minded obsession that drives him, which is running. Like Neil McCauley in Heat (1995), Murphy keeps to himself, developing no attachments to anyone and he adheres to same mentality that ex-con Frank espouses in Thief (1981), but runs into trouble when, against his better judgment, befriends Stiles and is dragged into the man’s problem.

Mann shows how deals are made among the inmates through favors. In order to speed up his next conjugal visit with his wife, Stiles makes a deal with Dr. D, which upsets the Black Brotherhood who feel that Stiles is betraying his race. This understandably creates tension between Murphy and Stiles, causing the former to lose a bit of his focus.

Meanwhile, the prison warden (Billy Green Bush) brings in a state track and field coach (Ed Lauter) from a Sacramento college who has Murphy run against three of his best athletes. Incredibly, Murphy beats them all, impressing the coach. The powers that be want him to run in the upcoming Olympic trials, but he turns them down. For him, it would be a cruel taste of the outside world and he knows that the rest of his life will be spent in prison. Of course, Dr. D’s favor has strings attached and once Stiles realizes what they are he becomes outraged. One gets the uneasy feeling that things are not going to end well for him.

Peter Strauss not only looks the part – he’s in phenomenal shape with the lean, muscular build of a runner – but also embodies it by portraying a self-made man who survives prison life through his running. It defines who he is while providing him with a day-to-day structure. He delivers an intense performance, picking his moments to explode with anger and then dialing it back to a simmer, like the fantastic monologue he delivers when Murphy explains to the prison doctor (Geoffrey Lewis) why he’s serving a life sentence. Strauss delivers his dialogue with heartfelt emotion and it’s hard not to get caught up in his character’s dream of becoming one of the best runners. The actor demonstrates an incredible commitment to the role, setting the standard for every subsequent lead actor in future Mann films.

The always-watchable Brian Dennehy is good as the smooth-talking Dr. D whose gang holds slight control over the prison population. He has a smiling façade but behind it is a lot of menace, especially when someone crosses him and threatens his drug trade. Richard Lawson is also good as the contrast to Strauss’ inmate. He instills an infectious streak of hope in Stiles who looks forward to being reunited with his family but this also gives him a lot to lose. He ultimately plays a tragic character, but one that has a profound effect on Murphy.

There are some truly powerful moments in The Jericho Mile, like when Murphy sends a message to Dr. D by burning the man’s drug money in the prison yard in front of everyone, but the most emotionally moving one is Murphy’s climactic run at the end of the film. The style of The Jericho Mile is quite crude compared to Mann’s future films as he adopts a more naturalistic look from his documentary work and it fits the subject matter. Like other Mann films, this one has an ear for distinctive lingo as it features authentic prison-speak. It’s not just what these men say but how they say it that makes it so believable. It didn’t hurt that Mann was allowed to shoot scenes in Folsom and even used real inmates as extras, which only lends to the film’s authenticity.

By the end of The Jericho Mile, Murphy stays true to himself even if it means he is unable to run in the big race. He chooses to live life on his own terms, refusing to compromise to the powers that be. At the end, Murphy may be in prison but to him as long as he is able to run he is free because he has nothing to prove to anyone but himself. This is symbolized by Murphy throwing away a stopwatch that he uses during training. It smashes on the ground. He doesn’t need to be constrained by record times or qualifying times – the only thing he has to beat is his own expectations.

Mann shot The Jericho Mile for only $60,000 and was told by the prison warden that there had been several individual stabbings – something that happened routinely and if a gang or race war were to occur, the film crew would have to leave. They wouldn’t be able to finish the film. Mann found a solution by casting 28 convicts in major roles and with Eddie Bunker’s help negotiated with all the prison gangs to have eight or nine of each group be in the film in exchange for no gang or race wars while they were there filming. He used film stock so that it was able to get a theatrical release in Europe. He won an Emmy for writing and a special Director’s Guild of America Award. After the film’s debut on ABC television, Mann received many offers to direct all kinds of feature films but turned them all down. He went to United Artists to ask for an $8 million budget and the freedom to direct a screenplay that he wrote, entitled, Violent Streets, which went onto become Thief.


Appelo, Tim. “Legendary Newsman Mike Wallace ‘Detested’ The Insider, Michael Mann Reveals.” The Hollywood Insider. September 22, 2014.

Feeney, F.X. and Paul Duncan. Michael Mann. Taschen. 2006.

Steensland, Mark. Michael Mann: The Pocket Essential Guide. Matrix Digital Publishing. 2009.