Michael Mann's "Blackhat": The Modern Mythology

Michael Mann creates a new kind of hero in his hacker thriller.
Daniel Kasman

"We’re going to need a blackhat hacker named Hathaway"—this alliterative summoning stutters us into modern mythology, Michael Mann's 2015 film Blackhat, playing in BAMcinématek's retrospective of the director, "Heat & Vice," in an unseen, mysterious new "re-edit." To accompany the tale, we need to put aside the silliness that's always a hazard in any risky artwork in favor of the potency of this staccato invocation. It conjures a chained power, soon releasing it from its bounds to first assist humans like a muse and then to join their world, taking over their struggle.

Blackhat’s hero Hathaway is a physical embodiment of the insidiously versatile power of cybercrime. Mann projects him into the world as a robust threat—to those at home and also to villains—a sexy, border traipsing, multidisciplinary force. In Miami Vice, the director’s last exploration of globalization through transnational crime, the vice cops could only achieve this ideal future state of border-melting freedom of mobility, of passion, and of action by donning the undercover mask of the hypermodern criminals whose life on the other side of the law achieved and maintained this seemingly utopian existence. We’ve evolved since 2006, Blackhat shows us: this vivid sense of freedom is no longer the domain of right and wrong, cops and robbers, but is attainable by brilliant minds externalized and embodied by equally brilliant physique and prowess. This hacker seems a new kind of god.

No title card tells us where Hathaway was imprisoned, nor where he goes next. Nor, until the film’s final act, what countries he passes through. He can solve crimes, he can invade, intercede, cloak himself: He is the power of the hacker manifest. Thus the strongest absurdity of the film isn't that Hathaway has the build and looks of Chris Hemsworth, but that a hacker's activity, his or her range of possibilities, is beyond our understanding such that anthropomorphizing it reaches the Uncanny Valley. His pretense in the film isn't so much silly as it is strange, like Schwarzenegger's cyborg sent from future to the past: an ideal, optimized futurebeing figured to fit into the look of this old world, but unable to not stand out.

The physical "release" of Hathaway—from prison, from the computer terminal—is why he will win the game the American and Chinese police forces draft him for, why he does win, and why by winning he goes beyond the game itself. One reason the villain fails is he is not projected into the world; he exists at the end of a terminal and prefers to have others do his real world bidding. Hathaway crosses the boundaries, the physical and nonphysical alike. Hathaway pulls the villain out into the world and destroys him and his minions. Hathaway is at once virtual and real, a hybrid existence, and those that fall around him, friends and foes, fail to cross such boundaries. Those in the movie who fall, those of the old world, are hardly dishonored. A small poem should each be written about Viola Davis's hard-boiled, frightfully intent FBI agent, and the lurking non-presence of Holt McCallany's US Marshal who comes into sudden, fearsome focus in the flare of muzzle flashes.

The visual sensorium of the director’s unconventional use of digital cameras and lenses pose his hero and the world's thrills at a frontier of existential longing that accompanies the stoic lifestyle and social incompatibility of Michael Mann's expert professionals. This mythos is very simple and stable: to be very good at something requires a level of dedication that occludes a normal life and spawns an unfulfillable desire from that lack of life. But these men—always and invariably men—have a consciousness and existence thrust so far away from the concerns of the rest of humanity that they always seem to be living on the edge. They search out vocations and technology that will push them beyond this world. Theirs is a kind of honed hyper-existence, which, unconventionally, does not recognize what it lacks and instead always tries to peer into the horizon to satisfy the longing and unrest. They peer into and desire to go onward toward that horizon.

Even before the director moved to digital video and summarily increased the degree of abstraction in both his images and his mise en scène, Mann has used a kind of clinical expressionism to clothe his hyper-masculinized heroes in an aura of glamorous, brooding destabilization and negative space. This has been taken much further with Mann's latest digital works, where a film like Blackhat features a rawer, more fleet, ungainly and sensual world than its celluloid predecessors. This abstract rawness befits the fugitives of Public Enemies (2009) and Blackhat better than the cop-chic heroes of Miami Vice, who seem to aspire to the rough and tumble lifestyle of the outlaw. That film's feeling of lifestyle aspiration is a nuance which enriches its dynamics at the cost of the same scoffing implausibility Hathaway’s hunky couture styling also never quite overcomes: attitude taken to such decadent heights they are hard to reconcile with the rest of the pictures. Only the kind of self-aware “acting” found in the cinematic professionals of Howard Hawks’s adventurers offers a solution to this problem, but Mann is far too serious for such deceptively casual playfulness in his actors. So we must take these figures as icons, as gods, Johnny Depp’s Dillinger, aglow with historic cache, being the most emblematic, but Hathaway a robust and risky attempt at a sui generis, truly of-the-moment figure of might and awe.

These modern gods seek speed as a state of living through which to attain freedom, and in their rush they sometimes touch the world. Along with this advent of digital abstractionism in the filmmaker's work has been a startling fore-fronting of physicality. As the images of these films have gotten faster moving, more thin and luminous, moments of tactility have become all the more important, beautifully gestural and grandiose. This is particularly notable in the images and sound design of the gunfights in the digital films, where in Blackhat’s decimating penultimate action sequence gunshots and bullet impacts carry the weight of sledgehammers, thundercracks followed by hurtled bodies, instantly killed. The more freeform, spontaneous, dancing camerawork of Blackhat lets us feel the physicality of the camera: it reacts, it adapts, we are aware of its presence, and perhaps its complicity poised at Mann's mythological forefront of work and longing. This tactility is not restricted only to violence; the shorthand romance between Hathaway and a Chinese woman (Wei Tang) proceeds from a single compassionate touch on an airstrip's forlorn tarmac to a car ride sequence akin to the work of another great contemporary impressionist, Claire Denis, full of the immediate sensation of bodies, proximity, glances and desire. We are reminded, though, by the hacker villain: “the moment you connect you lose control.” Romance in a Michael Mann film is but a momentary meeting of like existences touching to make sure something exists out of themselves, the man asking silently if this closeness is in fact the horizon towards which he's been rushing.

That horizon is always uncertain, no matter how good these pros are. Mann's films are littered with characters killed during their pursuit of the view from beachfront property. Blackhat ends in an ominous tone but with stark potential. Hathaway frees his Chinese lover from her terminal job and they cross borders together, a rare woman perhaps ascending towards something as powerful as the men of Mann's world for a sequel we'll surely never see.  The hacker couple walk towards the camera and we don't see the horizon or the future in a reverse shot. They may be together, but the white, white frame contains them, echoing the shade of Hathaway's original prison cell. It is clear that this figure of blackhat hacker Hathaway is no god of a global world but is perhaps a new type of being who is yet still bound to life's exigencies.

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