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The Speed of Causality: Michael Mann's "Blackhat"

Michael Mann’s new film is a paradox of magnitudes and proximities.

“Look at where you are.”

(Spoilers abound.)

Michael Mann’s new film, Blackhat, is a paradox of magnitudes and proximities. The scale is global, as announced in the opening shots that rhyme with the Universal logo just prior and, thanks to the dissolves down to Earth, Charles and Ray Eames' 1977 Powers of Ten. Once on ground, in a nuclear reactor’s control room, the powers of cinema take us yet deeper, smaller, to see how fast data travels across minuscule relays inside a screen, a computer, a network. And this data, or code, is made visible as points of light—dots arrayed and racing in tandem with the image (itself a fiction of code, or data) of this new vast universe—given weight through the thunder and crackle of sound design—a truly cinematic sequence of movement/animation no text can replicate.

This opening serves to illustrate the mechanisms at play in a piece of “blackhat hacking” where the virtual world of 1’s and 0’s is manipulated to wreck havoc in the real world. In this case, those racing families of light are sent to short circuit the industrial fans cooling the core of the submerged nuclear reactor, and likewise hide the hack on the monitors in control. In the first act of Blackhat we see these kinds of causes render two disastrous effects: a Chinese nuclear reactor explodes and soy futures traded in Chicago sky rocket. One an inscrutable piece of violence, the other a naked cash grab. Tying them together through code is a necessary mechanism as much as plausible detective work designed to get our story and its typically Michael Mann anti-hero into brusque motion in a brutal world.

Nick Hathaway is built like Thor thanks to Chris Hemsworth’s workout routine, presumably during his years in prison doing inverted pushups against a wall. But his brain works intuitively and analytically, he reads Foucault in confinement, and he was a member of academia before “gladiator camp,” as he calls it; a “genius hacker” responsible for “elegant” code who can hold two fingers to a screen and squint at lorem ipsum with the best of them. He insists that he is self-willed, self-determined, self-taught, and altogether self-oriented. Until he meets the beautiful sister of his long lost college roommate (Tang Wei the lithe sis-object, Wang Leehom the graceful bro-agent). She’s a systems analyst joining her PLA cyber crimes detective brother for the trip to the States to retrieve her new lover and his old friend in a tidy plot contrivance—and he happens to be played by a Hong Kong pop star (though born in America). Does this sound like the machinations of a studio product? The characters are so distilled into types they’re more tropes, figures, given weight by the humans wearing their dialog like skins. And we haven’t even thought about the FBI and US Marshals and NSA hacks. This is a world of law upended, dispersed, where agency takes a double meaning and is then undercut two ways by the bosses in charge of this operation and the evil in their world, these trope-characters obvious pawns in the plot of a film as much as the bad guy.

Blackhat affords Mann a perfect marriage of ideas with/in story, as far as using a tool such as the internet to perpetrate crime at a remove but relying on the speed and microscopic anatomy of a computer, of code. It’s a world that relies on snap judgements, and it’s mirrored in the means. The ability to use what looks like nothing to wreck havoc on what is manifest reality—to fabricate an effect upon the world—as fast and as hidden as possible. What is cinema but masking make believe as another reality we get to observe?

Mann’s fascination with detail is well known, but he rarely extends the same curiosity to what makes humans tick as much as the gadgets at their disposal. It’s a common complaint. But in a hard boiled story, where shells crack but don’t fall apart unless by force (often via a bullet...or thirty), to complain that these trope-character-humans aren’t rich enough is a waste of time. They exist, like the dots that start the picture, to put the world in motion. And they are, in fact, given discrete moments to show they’re more than figures of plot. We learn Viola Davis’s Agent Barrett lost a husband in 9/11 and moments later she’s gunned down, silent on the ground looking up not into but past the camera with dying eyes—and next a building, a lone figure against a dark sky, the image dipping into black—before a return to her face, now drained entirely for 36 frames. It’s a brief eddy in the action sequence, which immediately kicks into gear again, and another body is spun, yanked from the world by the violence inherent to it. (Violence against the systems, the reactor and the stock market, which results in violence against the human, the bodies on the ground.)

Macro fuels micro, and vice versa, in Michael Mann’s world. He crafts scenes of intimacy as well as violence, an attention to gestures, whether it’s how Tang Wei keeps toying with her hair or the veins in her neck, or the posture of a man in a firefight, he’s keen on how bodies move. And he’s determined to show how their actions, sometimes marrying love to murder, usually in a climactic firefight scored by synths, reflect the world they live in. Hathaway is sprung from prison to track the code to its author, a generic detective plot fraught and complicated not just by his role as a con (and later fugitive) but also by the nature of how his expertise preys on the systems of the world. A small (though buff) man in the scope and size of the planet can cross any border he wants from the seat of his chair: he can get into the NSA (!), he can rob banks, he can trace a pattern in targets’ movements across a metropolis, he can talk to the Ukraine (or is it?) from Los Angeles. His reach is longer than his arms, though in the end that’s all he has to use.

Mann’s world is cruel, breakneck, and full of light. Variations of hue and frame size that feel alive, not over-determined and chaotic, as in the work of Paul Greengrass, give life to the tropes, and weight to their story house, that world created. Night looks like night, and most of the scenes are set then, but that means daylight’s exposure is an anvil, the implacability of a tarmac horizon or the endgame of a tin mine valley. (The sunglasses everybody wears are beautiful.) Harsh but not bleak exactly, the world still allows for connection, and its rupture through violence is what keeps motivations piling up and our hero and his woman together in arms through fiberoptics and blood to the end, past the camera, into a kind of white light that somehow has hues and is not outright hopeful. After all, from that off-white nothing we cut to black.

Blackhat is a more complete film than Public Enemies (2009) or Miami Vice (2006), Mann’s two previous films, each a relative failure on the business side of the industry, but nonetheless remarkable aesthetic achievements in the realm of digital filmmaking. All of these recent films use digital means to advance both the documentary feel of the productions and the abstraction of the fictions. Public Enemies is a uniquely bizarre blend of the two, a disconnection of what’s real, especially as, on top of being a period piece with artificial looking sets and costumes, it’s based on a true history; everything we see is a fabrication, but it’s shown in a new kind of realism, aided and abetted by the digital form. Miami Vice is a story about the collision of worlds that’s as messy as it should be, a careening across the Caribbean and yet further south, everything pointed down to earth, into its liquids even, where blood is compared to paint. Mann is one of the few filmmakers attuned to what digital can and possibly should do. Or, he seems to understand that digital (cameras, processes, effects) afford cinema a speed and a proximity the old modes and models, with heavy magazines as much as bodies, could not. The most striking example of his digital thinking comes earliest in his experimentation, in Ali (2001), when Mann and Emmanuel Lubezki affixed lipstick cameras (hardly HD) to Will Smith as Ali (and his rivals in the ring) to capture the ferocity of fighting in close, the speed and violence of punch combinations, as proximal as possible.

Though after much different ends, David Lynch’s digital work is characterized by a similar willingness to get as close as possible to the subjects of the lens, and the seeming ability to go literally anywhere in space he chooses. INLAND EMPIRE (2006), for example, says with its title it wants to visualize the interior, and gives viewers a Russian doll of a film, spaces housing others, and spawning yet more, all seeming to exist inside a screen of some kind, and all of those inside a nameless, young mother. The defining image is a face, or a series of faces, most often distorted by the proximity of the camera as much as whatever the actress is doing. We might say that Lynch is trying to illuminate interiority—what is a self? what is a human? what is beyond the human? a self? other selves? souls?—mapping a network of significance as only a brain might, associationally, whereas Mann is after the real world this-then-that, the speed of causality.  

All of Michael Mann’s films are focused on, yes, a man who is very good at his profession. Most of the professions revolve around mastery, or control, in some shape or form. It’s easy to map an allegory of The Director to a thief (stealing what he needs to make a better life/story for himself), a cop (policing the right and wrong of the world, to better it), a boxer (fighting for his right to be himself in a world beset by people saying, “No,” is quite romantic), a hunter (reading terrain to feed his family), a TV news producer (who employs a camera along with his wits to build a story that serves the world as much as reports on it). But most often it’s those first two: a crook and an officer, both sides of the law, often pitted against one another in the same film and meeting across the line that divides them. It’s an easy metaphor for duality, but in his best movies these men are fallible and noble alike, often in the same action, often killing.

In Blackhat, the cop and robber tropes are mediated by computers, or better yet, the virtual that opening sequence so deftly illustrates, animates, and elucidates as not simply virtual but the product of tangible connections. The virtual exists on screens, in light, but also in engineering both minuscule and immense. It all depends on how you look at it, where you’re looking from, what kind of perspective you’re afforded. But the film is fun, first, for lack of a better term. It’s a thriller. The characters are tropes at face value—a hunk who hacks, a hack who hunts hackers, a hacker hunting money, etc.—but they exist to activate a worldview where single definitions, or roles given, come up faulty. If there’s a meaning to the movie it’s how easy it is to smokescreen intentions with the right skillset, how manipulation is vital to survival. The title—as much as the industry-determined casting, or the film grammar of identification—tells us who has the film’s sympathy, who it wants to win. Only Hathaway is identified as a “blackhat hacker,” not the evil mastermind, whom Hathaway and his cadre of lawmen (and one law woman) call “our player”, denoting the story as a game above all, but the mouse is the one sneaking around, trying to hide, to steal, fearing the wrath of the cat, which, well, you know what that rhymes with.

Hathaway announces the third act is going to be low tech, a feet on the ground campaign, and he tells us the climax is all about how fast he can get as close he can. The proximities become real after all. He doesn’t put the bad guy behind bars—though he does take time to use a laptop and a USB drive to steal what’s been stolen, a different kind of justice—he murders him because his friends were murdered first. (Eye for an eye?) And he doesn’t just shoot him, keeping the violence at a distance. He stabs him about twelve times in the chest, each one thumping and screeching in a hysterical hi-hat-bass-kick garage rage.

Slight quibble: Leehom Wang is Taiwanese-American, not from Hong Kong. This is reflected in Wang’s Cantonese during the Hong Kong scenes of “Blackhat”, in which he is clearly more comfortable in Mandarin than Canto. Since this is a Michael Mann film though, the actors cannot exactly cop out: if Chris Hemsworth can write code, brutalize bad guys, and walk into a crumbling nuclear reactor in a hazmat suit, then Wang will have to speak however many languages as the plot requires him to and when the plot takes them to Hong Kong that basically means Wang is going to have to speak Cantonese. Michael Mann: always a stickler for details. Other than that, thanks for the article! There is a lot to think about here. Most of the characters in “Blackhat” seem to me defined by their functions, such as the ones that fulfill the plot requirements that I just mentioned. Yet unlike Hanna and McCauley in “Heat”, Nicholas Hathaway tells Lien that he just wants to fix televisions once he becomes a free man, thereby divorcing himself of a global system wherein RATs, cyber-criminals, FBI, PLA, Ukrainian proxy servers, bad USBs, bad PDFs, and more all act upon their various “functions” more than anything else. I am not sure if this is similar to the “trope-characters” that you are talking about Ryland, who you describe as “like the dots that start the picture, to put the world in motion”, but if so then the way I see it Hathaway wants out of this world wherein everything is like data flowing and functioning in a system. Perhaps this explains all those shots of Hathaway looking at Lien’s hair coiled up on the back of her neck, or that talk of fixing televisions with, well, Lien again. His gaze longs after what is outside of the system, which is where the emotion of the film lies. As for whether or not this longing is naive, the final scene of the film seems rather coy about it.
Thanks for the clarification, Neil. I am an ignorant white guy, that’s all I know about Cantonese-Mandarin. :) And you give a much more human reading of the characters than I offered, so thanks in turn. I do love that the couple finds a way out, unlike in Miami Vice, say. That is, they find a way to break through the limits the world tries to enforce. I dunno how long they’re gonna last out there, but it’s a great, yes coy, ending.
Some interesting thoughts in this article but there’s a lot I disagree with. “Mann’s fascination with detail is well known, but he rarely extends the same curiosity to what makes humans tick as much as the gadgets at their disposal.” If it’s not apparent in his films, one only needs to read or watch any of Mann’s interviews to realize how wrong that statement is. His curiosity about what makes people tick is the main starting point of his creative process, the “gadgets” are mostly used for dramatic and thematic purposes. I don’t think the casting was industry-determined, Mann was likely impressed by Wang Leehom’s and Wei Tang’s performances in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution and decided to cast them. Hemsworth/Hathaway doesn’t say “gladiator camp” but “gladiator academy”. The full line is : “I traded academia for gladiator academy”. It’s a well known term used to describe U.S. state prisons, was also used in Heat. I wouldn’t say the characters are reduced to tropes, though I understand why one would get that impression at first glance. The characters are developed through the action (how they move, talk or shoot) rather than through exposition. The way Holt McCallany’s character holds his gun and shoots, and how good he is, does tell us something about him, his skills, his past experiences, etc. Same goes for the stabbing in the climax that you described, this is something an ex-con would likely be good at. Action in Mann’s films is always a canvas for both story telling and character development. “We might say that Lynch is trying to illuminate interiority … whereas Mann is after the real world this-then-that, the speed of causality.” I think Mann actually is trying to illuminate the interiority as well, the real world causality is a means that he uses to that end. Responding to Neil’s comment, Hathaway wanting to stop his criminal activities and assimilate into mainstream society actually mirrors McCauley’s plans in Heat, Frank’s plans in Thief, and Dillinger’s plans in Public Enemies. This is nothing new in Mann’s filmography, all these characters plan their exit at one point or another. They all love what they do, but it’s primarily a way for them to get what society denied them, their own version of the American dream. Hathaway, like anybody who has a computer with an internet connection, cannot escape the system of RATS and cyber-criminals, but he’s not longing for safety, he’s longing for freedom and love, both of which the ending grants him.

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