Miami Vice, Machiavelli, and Modernity

Just finished the book Miami Vice by philosopher Steven Sanders (2010, Wayne State U Press), and it was quite a read. He makes several points, some of which I suspected, and some of which I did not know. First, Sanders says, as I’ve long thought, that MV features both substance and style. Much was made of the show’s visuals — the cars, the clothes, and the city — but its stories featured significant themes and content, which the visuals supported. Specifically, Sanders discusses the “film noir” background of crime thrillers that are strange, erotic, ambivalent, cruel, and dream-like. MV exhibits these qualities, but it does so in a modern, visually bright way through the beauty and beaches of Miami in what Sanders calls, “Sunshine Noir.”

Second, MV uses its protagonists, undercover Miami vice detectives Sonny Crockett and Rico Tubbs, to explore themes of disassociation, confusion, and anomie associated with, if not a breakdown of society, the significant social changes of the 1980s. Working undercover is part of the job of being a vice detective — the show uses the names Burnett and Cooper for their alternate egos — but there is more going on there. The vice detectives are constantly being exposed to temptation in the form of money, drugs, and women, but they are also exposed to risk, danger, and exposure. Their existence is an unnerving double world at the line between law enforcement and criminality, and sometimes that line gets blurred, resulting in personal fear and confusion. Sanders explores these themes through authenticity and redemption — what is real, and what is good? The confusion comes in doing things that don’t come naturally to a regular person — leading a double life, which requires lying, and associating with criminals to enforce the law and protect society.

Here, the crime thriller genre of film noir starts to edge into more espionage territory, which also features undercover operations for the good in the form of international intrigue, but the mental stresses are similar. Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold is a related noir genre that concludes with moral ambiguity — the Soviets and the Eastern Block are essentially the same as the British and Americans. This was seen as perhaps an insightful conclusion in the 1960s, but in hindsight it seems too facile, and here’s where modernity and Machiavelli comes into play. Machiavelli represents the verge of modernity in which the traditional moral precepts were seen as, in some ways, unworkable and that to be an effective leader, and the achieve a successful and moral society, the guardians of that society may have to engage in behaviors that are not, strictly, moral. This seems to be what Crockett and Tubbs are trying to do — go undercover and be exposed to criminality for the greater good. The problem is that the systems being manipulated — criminal Miami and the Cold War — are both complex and the time lines are long, so activities, operations, and missions undertaken for the greater good may remain unknown to the protagonist or actor. The costs however, are immediate, significant, and sometimes fatal. Even though the efficacy of actions undertaken in Machiavelli’s modern world are uncertain, the fact we are living in his modern world are far more certain.

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