Long Voyage Home: "Blackhat" & Revolutions of the Digital Image

On "Blackhat" and Michael Mann's mastery of digital form.
Adam Cook

It has been about six months since my last entry in this supposedly regular column. There are various excuses I could make as to why, but rather than dwell on the past, I'd like to usher this "Long Voyage Home" onward into the future, in the trailblazing spirit of Michael Mann. I couldn't avoid writing on Blackhat, a film that I found as viscerally and formally thrilling as anything I've seen at the cinema in recent memory (and that includes Jean-Luc Godard's Adieu au langage). I've seen it three times and plan to see it at least once more on the big screen before its (likely brief, considering its box office numbers) run ends. It has taken me multiple viewings to get closer to understanding all of Blackhat's moving parts, a journey in itself that I eagerly plan to continue.

A textbook auteur case study, Michael Mann’s films clearly revolve around similar themes and contain recurring metaphors, tropes, and elements, and his latest, Blackhat, has most of the usual pieces in play. It’s also distinct from the films that precede it. The director's formal language has evolved rapidly since he started experimenting with digital filmmaking technology in a single scene in Ali (2001). In that film, Mann filmed Will Smith jogging at night with a digital camera, capturing a vivid impression of nighttime with the look and feel of night in a way not possible on film, while also breaking the veil of celluloid and placing this mythic figure in the real world, seen through the ‘flawed’ texture of the seemingly ‘cheap’ digital aesthetic—an idea further articulated by showing him jog just like anyone else. Thus, the very first time Mann deployed digital, it was for a reason. While most other filmmakers lament the death of celluloid (in no way am I belittling this lament, which I share) and begrudgingly use digital technology and try to recreate a look as close to film as possible, Mann has mined the unique properties of digital cameras, and has developed what could be seen as a new formal language built on abstract impressionism that you can catch proto-glimpses of as far back as Thief (1981), but that could not fully blossom without digital aesthetics. The content is there, but the surface has changed, and the means through which we access it; the films speed around, circling convention, hinting at fuller stories and grasping at characters with more left unsaid than said yet more felt than ever.

From Ali, we have the digital exteriors of Collateral (2004) which figure late-night-L.A. as a primary character in the film and the main element in creating mood. Then Mann goes all in with the radical and elusive Miami Vice (2006), a film we’re still catching up with (and he’s already miles past it). Public Enemies (2009) brought things to new extremes by contrasting this revolutionary digital style with a historical period piece, shattering pre-conceived notions of filming the past, and bringing us closer than we ever have to feeling the past. It seems contradictory: Mann is a director and storyteller driven by facts, details, and his most fervent goal is to accurately depict a world and its characters, but the results are far from what one would call traditional realism. Instead, what we have is a sensory realism that wants you to know how guns fire bullets, and what it feels like when they do, and the means to do so are impressionistic, unusual, and embrace both the advantages of digital technology and its "flawed" properties that can render individual images strange, pixelated, and alien.

Mann has abandoned classical form and storytelling but has retained his signatures, while pushing film language into new territory. Professional, driven men, trapped in worlds of work, who dream of freedom (the ocean) and the relief of peaceful purpose (the woman, romance, pauses in their otherwise rapid/busy lives) populate Mann’s oeuvre. This time around it’s Chris Hemsworth’s hacker genius Nick Hathaway, brought out of prison (sucked back into the flux) to catch a blackhat “terrorist.” Almost immediately after breathing the fresh air of freedom of his release, Hathaway falls inexplicably in love with Chen Lien (Wei Tang), the sister of the Chinese agent (Leehom Wang) that requested Hathaway’s assistance (an old college roomie, it turns out). Women have always been assigned secondary roles in Mann’s films, but they’re usually as strong as the men, if not stronger, and more freely navigate between life, work, and love. If you thought Colin Farrell and Gong Li’s romance in Miami Vice seemed unmotivated or implausible (on logical storytelling grounds), wait until you witness the accelerated, immediate coming together of Hathaway and Chen in Blackhat. Blink and you’ll miss Cupid firing his arrow, but Mann’s images have a way of articulating character's thoughts and feelings just through the experience of watching them (there’s still exposition and some classical development, but mostly it’s left to gestural implications, glances, and glimpses). 

Within the logic of the film, it works. It’s because they recognize something in one another, they’re on the same page (or screen). They fit together like code so why not embrace? After a rough day of work together they look out at the city and the night sky from a rooftop, turn away, look at one another, and promptly kiss and make love. In solidarity from the anonymous urban abyss that represents the globalized modern world in which they find themselves as constantly grinding gears in an invisible machine, they come together. Only the self is haven, and only an other can validate it. Whether this is something these characters find at the film’s end, or if the impossibility of escaping ‘the grid’ means losing oneself, is a question mark.

From Miami Vice onward, there is no gap between the viewer’s experience and the vivid impression of the characters and the worlds they occupy. And finally with Blackhat, Mann has found a subject as contemporary as his style, and the results are sublime, transcendent, and thrilling. The same things have obsessed this director since day one. For example, compare the opening of Thief with Blackhat. Both track the process of what makes the professional tasks of their characters work (meticulously breaking into a safe in Thief, hacking into nuclear reactor from across the world in Blackhat). But the means through which these are shown couldn’t be more different, the tactility and craftsmanship of Thief replaced with the CGI-assisted camera move through the intangible universe of the internet in Blackhat. The differences say much about how the world is changed, and how Mann’s cinema has adapted to it. He’s still making stories about men pitted against unattainable oceanic freedoms that drive them forward through their Sisyphean daily grinds, temporary escapes that hint at a world they can’t be a part of lest their definition of self evaporate—but in the specificity of approach and of the context of each character, story and time period lies distinct insights and meanings.

It’s irksome that Mann’s style is greeted with so much skepticism when lifeless gimmickry is received as visionary. While directors Alejandro González Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón play silly games with their tech look-at-me olympics, Mann’s command of digital cinematographic miracles is only ever to serve the moment as it happens, intuitive plays with focus, proximity, and movement, re-framing a single shot several times, finding sensory sweet spots. All of these gestures exist to express something different, not according to some one-note logic like Gravity or Birdman, but to the demands of the scope of emotions and ideas that flow through Blackhat as quickly and intangibly as the code that travels continents in fleeting seconds.

The transience that has been a huge part of the existential philosophy of Mann’s work from day one has now been matched by the transience of the shifting form, and of the world it derives inspiration from. The criticism that this style results in a sort-of halfway avant-gardism that contradicts the classical instincts that still drive the director is one that fails to see the synonymous nature of the form and the pure, existential plight of the characters. Locating the evolution of this digital language as solely something within the art/artist is reductive: the world has changed, is changing, and Mann isn’t just using the latest tools for kicks, but is implicitly keeping up with our relationship to the world, which retains the same dramas, tragedies, and dilemmas, yet shifts in it’s forms and manifestations. Blackhat moves closer and closer to tactility until its inevitable hacker-on-hacker showdown, where keyboards are traded for hand-to-hand weapons, and Hathaway has to take on the bad guy face-to-face. In a film that so fully depicts a world where touch is something absent from reality, it still has to resort to it—and so does its protagonist, who, caught in a stream he’ll never escape, can resist it, move within it, exist within it, and, if only momentarily, transcend it.

Long Voyage Home is an ongoing series by Adam Cook

Don't miss our latest features and interviews.

Sign up for the Notebook Weekly Edit newsletter.


Long Voyage HomeMichael MannNewsletterColumns
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.