On a first viewing Blackhat seems, for a Michael Mann movie, uncharacteristically uninterested in its characters. The film opens with a view of our planet defined by its international online connections rather than by borders. It glows bright blue with the voluminous links and transactions traversing our planet. The scope of this tale is laid down; the cops and criminals in Mann’s latest picture are working on a global scale. Considering the damage Mann’s damaged men can cause on a local level, Blackhat is charting actions and distances bigger than we have seen before in his films. It’s a Parallax View-inflected slice of conspiracy, with a body count and danger to match the levels of paranoia.
The actions undertaken by the characters in Blackhat have a wide reach, yet they begin with the tiniest infractions on a microchip. From our blue worldview, we slowly cut to a nuclear power plant in China, and then cut in further and further, and the scale gets smaller and smaller. We eventually arrive at the infinitesimal circuitry of a microchip embedded somewhere in the power plant’s control systems. The grey chips and circuits are suddenly flooded with bright lights, as alternative instructions come flooding in to the computer system. More obstructive instructions pile on the circuitry before the plant’s cooling system breaks down, triggering an explosion. In all of this, we briefly cut to a shadowy figure in a remote location punching in commands on a keyboard. In his crime oeuvre, Mann’s criminals pride themselves on a certain distance. Heat’s Neil McCauley insisted on emotional distance to allow himself a hassle-free escape should it be required. In Miami Vice, the cartel being investigated is located in the Caribbean, far from the reach of the Vice squad in Florida. Blackhat’s antagonist is only glimpsed in the last act, with an ocean and various middlemen separating him from the chaos he created in China with a keyboard and a sturdy Internet connection. His identity doesn’t matter, but his intent and his capabilities do. As Mann’s criminals get further away, the damage they can cause increases exponentially.
It may be this distance that caused Blackhat to be a costly flop for Mann. For audiences, this dependable chronicler of solitary males driven by basic compulsions/desires to undertake grave actions may have cast his net too wide. Goodness knows why; it’s his typical tale of a leading man (Chris Hemsworth in the role of criminal hacker Nicholas Hathaway) with a basic desire (freedom from prison) driving him to a great task (apprehend the hacker who blew up the power plant). Some of the blame can be pinned on a relative failure by filmmakers to adequately treat the world of hacking and cyber-terrorism with the respect it deserves up to now. The most notable films featuring hacking narratives include Hackers and The Net, which speaks volumes. Most directors will admit it’s tricky to make scenes of people tapping code into keyboards look cinematic or exciting, and with hacking’s onscreen track history, most any analyst of box office figures would have guessed that Blackhat was a risk. Yet, underneath the tech-y guise is a Mann film through and through. Its failure to gain critical traction was a surprise, considering Mann’s relative success in that arena. Mann has almost always come through box office disappointments (Manhunter, The Insider) by virtue of the fact that he had a great many admirers in critical and industry circles. He gained this traction simply by being a good director, and Blackhat is an unquestionably well-directed film. His choices of camera angles, his framing and blocking are elegant, rarely calling attention to themselves but offering up rewards for the attentive viewer. For any gripes about who did what (Blackhat has four credited editors and three credited composers, with contributions from others), Mann is the undoubted auteur of this film.
As with all of Mann’s work, Blackhat’s plot is predicated on an atmosphere of cool distrust. From the anonymous attack on the power plant, to protagonist Hathaway being a convicted criminal, the audience is put on the back foot when it comes to expectations. Before Hathaway is even brought into the mix, the initial investigations see Chinese analyst Chen DaWei (Leehom Wang) seeking assistance from the FBI in tracking the attack. We meet FBI reps Barrett (Viola Davis) and Pollack (John Ortiz) reviewing DaWei’s credentials. Despite DaWei’s Western education, Pollack describes working with their Chinese counterparts as ‘inviting them into the henhouse.’ For all the trumpeting Hollywood may do of increased Sino-American cooperation (see Transformers: Age of Extinction or The Martian for examples), Blackhat sees such cross-border enterprises on a more tactical level. Before achieving a common goal, the two parties must first establish trust; that being said, in the course of the film inter-agency trust is necessarily established and broken, allegiances are scattered and bodies pile up. The film begins in the depths of a corrupted computer system and balloons in size to end on a shootout. Pessimism goes through Blackhat like words through a stick of rock.
The basic requirement of trust sees DaWei enlist the assistance of his sister Lei (Tang Wei), a fellow analyst. In the forms of Hemsworth, Wei and Wang, the protagonists in Blackhat differ from Mann’s stock-in-trade leads. Once, Petersen and Cox talked through iron bars, and De Niro and Pacino had a shootout at a bank. Now, the criminal is a continent away, possessed of different skills and abilities, which can only be countered by a new generation of coders, analysts and investigators. In numerous other films, hackers and hacking is a novelty. In Blackhat, Mann uses his stylish, mature eye to elevate it to a legitimate, awe-inspiring threat. Crucially, the architecture of circuitry and code is not made accessible; it is a foreign, cold world with few trustworthy navigators. Scenes take place with credible discussion of online security systems in rooms with towering servers emitting blue glows (Mann always gets the most of his DoP, and Stuart Dryburgh’s work here is no exception, creating a world of darkness pierced by interloping primary colours). Overseeing all of this is the ever-wonderful Davis as Barrett, a throwback to old-school defence in need of youthful expertise to provide security in a new battlefield. She’s not weak (“Chica? Am I hispanic?!”) but she is tactical, with an attempt at a backstory proving an unnecessary adjunct to the basic foundation of leadership and security she provides. Watch her break a stock market official (Spencer Garrett) in pursuit of information on possible beneficiaries from a stock market spike.
The relationships between countries, and between young and old, are initially chilly. Yet the urgency of the hacker’s threat, as evidenced on a follow-up attack on a stock market to inflate soy futures, ensures the working relationships grow closer quickly, if only out of necessity. The increased closeness of cooperation is emphasized by Mann’s framing, with more single shots of DaWei and Barrett analyzing data together, while Lei and Hathaway try to track down contacts to the hacker on the ground. Their relationship has grown beyond the professional, but the script gives little dialogue to this aspect. Mann conveys their growing closeness through furtive glances and glimpses at necks and arms. Throughout his oeuvre, in the most basic of human interactions, Mann lets body language do most of the talking. Blackhat is all about showing, not telling, not least because telling is ineffective. Why try to explain the transfer of corrupting data through a computer network when you can show it instead? Complicating your script with potentially cheesy dialogue will do you few favours, but showing the desires of the characters works effectively and efficiently. Early on in the investigation, Hathaway asks the crucial question, “What does this guy want?” What he wants hardly matters; it is his want, his desire, that is dangerous, because he can get most anything he wants with a few taps on a keyboard. For all its technical trappings, Blackhat is a paranoid glimpse at desire at its most horrifically manifest. Control, power, money; it’s all there at the click of a mouse. (Not really, but Mann sure makes it feel that way).