We have come to take movies for granted. Not the fact that they exist, that is, but rather that they work as storytelling devices—that they can affect us, that they can present us with a premise that is abjectly false and yet fool us into believing it, that they can make us empathize with and sympathize with characters that do not exist. Why should a film like Alien or The Blair Witch Project scare us? None of it is true. Why should a film like Mystic River move us? Its narrative is a complete falsification. The fact that a movie can impact us in that way is nothing but remarkable. And yet it feels silly to even be discussing this. We all know it—it just goes unsaid. We all (or, at any rate, most of us) like Inception, but nobody feels the need to raise their hand and say that the film is a lie, that it’s all a fabrication, and that nobody can actually live out (or be trapped in) their dreams.
There’s a feat that is still greater though, a feat perhaps more impressive than making your audience believe in a false world. I’ve always been amazed at movies and TV shows that get us to root for people of questionable moral character. Anything to do with gangsters always seems to work out that way. When we watch The Sopranos, we are on the side of Tony Soprano—and yet Tony Soprano is a sociopath, and if he were to live down the street from us, it’s very likely we wouldn’t be rooting for him. Put him on a screen, along with his cadre of flawed soldiers, and we suddenly enter a world of wonder where such characters are in fact appealing.
We can make an even finer distinction. Dispense with gangsters and instead imagine characters that are on our side. 24’s Jack Bauer has no reservations about torturing suspects in order to extract information from them, an act that seems prosaic and entirely justified when we’re watching the show, but that many of us would take issue with if we saw it occurring in real life. Meanwhile, the Daniel Craig incarnation of James Bond can’t even seem to keep suspects alive long enough for questioning. In Quantum of Solace, Bond very much adopts a shoot-first-ask-questions-later approach—this continues in Skyfall—which results in him killing men he had set out to capture and interrogate. That could hardly be called ‘best practice.’ Both of these men are flawed; both definitely behave unethically, and most of us would say they behave immorally as well. And yet they have our complete support, no matter the trail of blood and bodies they leave behind them.
The case of Tony Soprano in particular (interchangeable with Omar Little in The Wire, or Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, and so on) is evidence enough that we are willing to support bad people so long as they are framed in the right way. ‘Framing’ is the art of heightening certain facts about a case and downplaying other facts in order to get across your desired message or to achieve your desired goals. In The Sopranos, we primarily see Tony Soprano as a family man, and then as an affable mobster—not as a murderer, and certainly not as a villain. He often claims he chose the criminal path so he could ensure a good life and a better future for his family. This is the act of framing at work. In the abstract, it really shouldn’t matter whether Soprano has no children or five children. He is still a criminal. But in the realm of the dramatic, when family and joviality are the first things we are presented with, that is the thing we glom onto and embrace. We see Soprano as flawed rather than evil.
In film, the act of framing is largely managed by the director. The director is, in a way, a puppet master, and a good director will control our emotions just as much as they control the characters. Director Michael Mann a virtuoso at this. His magnum opus is Heat.
Heat is a stunning work. Its premise, in something smaller than a nutshell, is this: Al Pacino is a policeman; Robert De Niro is a career criminal, specialized in pulling heists. Policeman hunts criminal. Mann’s film stands easily as one of the greatest movies ever made, and there are all manner of things about it worth discussing. But it is significant in one way that is important to us here: Mann makes us care not only about the hero, Pacino, but also the villain, De Niro. And, in fact, if you were to ask most people to choose between the two at the end of the film, they would not choose Pacino. They would choose the criminal. They would choose De Niro.
Here, Mann pulls one of the best framing jobs we’re ever likely to see, but before that, it’s important to note a twist that gums up the works somewhat for the viewer. The roles of ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ aren’t that clearly defined in Heat—in fact, they’re practically nonexistent. We’re used to picking out heroes and villains when we watch a movie. Even if we’ve never seen Die Hard before, we realize that the hard luck cop is the good guy, and the well-dressed, sinister looking German man is the bad guy. There are certain cues we pick up on—they might be thematic, or they might be as simple as costuming or the musical theme that accompanies a character. But nothing of the sort can be found in Heat. Mann removes all those overt cues from the film. And yet, crucially, he still wants us to make that hero/villain designation, and to choose a party to back, because the film ends in a one-on-one showdown between the two men.
Mann influences us more subtly. He prods us along the way, but he doesn’t make any decision for us, and in that way, most people will end up skewing toward De Niro. De Niro is warmer than Pacino, more level-headed, and Mann makes him the audience’s voice in the film, which brings him closer to us. When one of his cronies says something stupid, he responds as we would, with a shake of the head or an incredulous double-take; when it is clear his girlfriend no longer wants to be with him after what he’s done, he tells her reasonably, without threat or malice, that she should leave. De Niro always seems to do what we want him to do. He’s our guy. The slightly more abrasive Pacino loses out. Yet, think of how wrong that is—Pacino is the policeman! Pacino is the man doing the right thing. Most of us, if posed with that choice, would forgo him for the criminal, just because the criminal seems like a more likable guy.
We are easily influenced and easily deceived. Even an absolute massacre—the bank robbery gone awry and the subsequent shootout on Flower and Figueroa—can’t dissuade us from believing in De Niro’s character. We don’t leave that scene with the thought that these people are murderers. We leave that scene in awe of the absolute destruction, and in awe of the characters’ ability to stay alive. If morality is controlled by the director then, in a certain sense, we are a captive audience. As Mann points out in his commentary for the film, De Niro is undoubtedly a sociopath—he doesn’t even blink when he opens fire at a crowd of civilians in an attempt to hold the police back. He’s a bad person. Tony Soprano is a bad person too. And we like them. What does that mean for us? I don’t think that makes us bad people—it just makes us dupes. We may find some redeemable qualities in these characters, some semblance of normalcy that we can cling to. . . but at a basic level, we’re easy to fool. When we buy into a character we buy in big, and we never think it through. The fact that this medium can influence us in that way is amazing.