Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

Feb 4, 2015

Blackhat (2015)

by Will Ross

Of all the American auteurs who consistently work with huge budgets, Michael Mann is the most aesthetically daring. However much one admires the late careers of Scorsese or Tarantino, their most formally radical days are long behind them; each reinvented the toolbox of the American director, and their tools are now instantly recognizable and digestible, even if their makers still wield them with more boisterous precision than anyone else. Mann, on the other hand, has only pushed further against the grain in the last decade, shellacking ordinary notions of what is allowed in gritty crime action movies. The style he's worked is so difficult to imitate, so anathemic to contemporary ideas of what makes for an appealing action movie, and, most of all, so demanding of utterly confident tonal vision and control, that it is challenging to grasp and near-impossible to replicate, and so it hasn’t exactly set genre filmmaking on fire. What’s more, the aggressively unusual digital video of Miami Vice and Public Enemies was easily mistaken for slapdash tech fetishism, and oft-dismissed as such by critics. In those films’ case, that charge is not unfounded (their mutant formalism and narrative spines compete as often as they cohere), but it’s hardly a fair attitude towards a director who has proven his chops more than enough to have his experiments taken seriously. In each of his last four films (Collateral, Miami Vice, Public Enemies, and now Blackhat), Mann has grasped more and more at the premises that define his craft, tangling and untangling each and every one of the innumerable strands that constitutes crime-thriller storytelling, and then tangling them together again into an almost unrecognizable new weave. He is, in short, trying some crazy shit, and doing it without the creative safety net of the arthouse community.

It is important to seize upon and celebrate this fact, because the disastrous box office take of Blackhat won’t permit us to celebrate it much longer. In a time where most high-budget affairs earn funding because of their franchising opportunity, or at best their ultra-high concepts, Mann remains a moving target. Nine years after he used Vice to flip his middle finger at the franchise-reboot gravy train, and received the punishment of meager ticket sales and befuddled reviews, Mann is still compromising less, not more. But the public isn’t biting, most critics aren’t biting, and lord knows Oscar isn’t biting.
For those of us who claim that the mainstream has dismissed Mann’s latter works out of hand, a new tech-thriller about hackers has been awaited almost breathlessly — all the more so since it marks his return to feature filmmaking after his truncated stint in television with Luck. Mann has been absent from cineplexes for six years, and is arguably facing down his lowest ebb of public opinion in that realm. He must have been aware of this when he cast Asgardian beefcake Chris Hemsworth, not exactly a respected √†rtiste among cinephiles, as genius hacker Nicholas Hathaway, arguably the most broadly proficient of Mann’s long line of hypercompetent protagonists. Mann must have been even more aware when he decided that as the story begins, Hathaway would be called out of prison to help find and stop the blackhat hacker… after six years of incarceration.

The Chinese government and FBI form a small collaborative team to stop this menace, whose seemingly unmotivated attacks have so far devastated stock markets and a nuclear power plant. Heading up the Chinese effort, Captain Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) notices that a section of the blackhat’s code is based on an old virus authored by his former roommate as a college gag, and asks his FBI counterpart (Viola Davis) to furlough and enlist a certain musclebound prison inmate. Hathaway demands that if they succeeded, his sentence be commuted, and the Americans acquiesce. Which, besides his convict status, turns out to be a hell of a coup: other than the extreme computer savvy that makes him the most valuable detective of the team, Hathaway is skilled with a pistol, and even better hand-to-hand.

These skillsets may seem dissonant (“A ripped, action-ready hacker? Really?”), and prime ammunition for the claim that Mann, for all his insistence on cutting edge digital techniques, is hopelessly out of touch. But that’s looking at things the wrong way around: Hathaway is a modern criminal, and hacking is as important to his stock and trade in the 21st century as safecracking was to Frank, the diamond-robber in Mann’s 1981 film Thief. Hathaway is ruthlessly practical, constantly developing the talents that make him useful and bring him freedom; hacking is one adjunct to that, being a violence-ready badass is another. “I do time, time doesn’t do me,” he tells Captain Chen’s sister Lien (Tang Wei). “You talk like you’re still in prison,” she replies, and indeed he does. Like most of Mann’s leading men, Hathaway is faced with a call to emotional immediacy that flies in the face of his freewheeling careerist paradigm.

That conversation, held in a modest and cramped Korean restaurant, is the catalyst for a near-spontaneous love affair, another staple of Mann’s work. Though his screenplays sometimes falter in tying these B-plots to the A-plots (whatever its defendants argue, I have never been convinced that Miami Vice’s romance effectively merges with its undercover action), this scene gets things started on the right foot: it’s a setup for an action scene that also functions as a quasi-date, at the same time and for mostly the same reasons. Those two narrative elements only tighten further from there.

And the further Blackhat can tie things to its action element, the better, because holy cow, this movie’s set pieces are totally off the hook, easily the best the director has done since The Big One in Heat. Taken as a whole, it may be even better, as Mann takes a new tack with every scenario. In a three-on-one brawl, a swiping, handheld camera over Hemsworth’s shoulder. In a shootout among containers, the ominous metallic thunks of the bullets peppering Hathaway’s cover. In a sudden and terrifying ambush that totally reconfigures the remainder of the film, with audio and cinematography flying between authentic and dreamlike, gunshots churning between thooming drones and hollow plak-plak-plaks, movements shifting from smeary smoothness to sharp and jittery jolts. It’s a rare beast, an action film where every action scene is unique in its contours and purpose, where the metaphorical and tactile experience are just as important as the story stakes that hinge on each battle.

Or more important, depending on how you watch it. As much as he demands from his audience, Michael Mann is a truly generous filmmaker, and Blackhat works on a number of levels at once, in most any combination that the audience chooses. It’s easy, as you watch, to vault the maze of the detective story almost entirely, and just explore the textures and rhythms that a mixed frame rate, an erratic sound mix, and an impressionistic but hard-as-asphalt shootout can offer. It works so well on this level — it has all the sensory propulsion of Chungking Express — that you can take it on like a fever dream, fed by the snippets of plot and character that you catch in the low-mixed dialogue.

Not a scene goes by when Mann doesn’t glide over four or five twists of film form. He cuts from a smeary, blown out DSLR shot to a crisply defined frame from the Arri Alexa, from a comfortable 24 frames per second to a disjointed 30, from a snakey steadicam medium shot to a hyperactive handheld closeup. He changes a gunfight’s sound perspective in mid-shot, or drowns out nominally expository dialogue with music or ambience. These techniques often cue us into the subtext of a given scene, and they always beckon us to understand a moment, a movement, a motive in a new way. Blackhat is constantly experimenting, but it is absolutely not fucking around.

You can also watch it as a hard-edged procedural mystery, where the sharp corners and clipped pace of Mann’s aesthetic render each clue and technical term all the more critical to decipher and understand, where each problem solved is another pull of a long rope promising revelation on the other end. The hacking scenes don’t rest on a character clacking a bunch of code we don’t understand onto a screen and declaring, “I’m in!” Anyone with a working knowledge of computers can understand the technical principles at work in this film, but the real fun is in broader logistical strategies. These are often most entertaining for their ingenious simplicity, as in one scene where Hathaway sets a plan to hack into the NSA with password-stealing bait designed to appeal to their own paranoia. There is no shortage of pleasures for those who like to work out plotting puzzles, and the attentive are rewarded by a little gag in the final scene, where a character avoids a paper trail with a straightforward push of the “No” button.

There’s certainly a tension between these two approaches — the opulent, lingering emotions of aesthetic experience and the breakneck calculations of the plot — especially for the first two thirds of the film. That’s much of the point. Blackhat is the story of a man who senses in his life a rift between two worlds: one of data, of negotiations and sentences and the collection of strength and knowledge and power; the other, a more nebulous world that he feels, a world more readily perceptible, but harder to understand and solve. Though his chosen functions are those of purely practical problem-solving, Hathaway finds himself drawn to moments of contemplation, of internal mysteries, like a long but fleeting look at the heat waves of an airport tarmac (here standing in for the Mannian convention of looking out to the ocean for solutions to the soul’s enigma, as if they might just be buried somewhere in the infinite waves). Lien interrupts him with the question he’s no doubt asking himself, “Are you okay?” Later, he asks her, “Will you still like me if I fix garage doors?” and is answered with another mystery: “Maybe.” The cold, hard fact at the center of Hathaway’s world is that all the coding and decoding and decryption in the world can never unmask the abstractions that lie beneath.

That goes for the digital manhunt, too. Using the system of the good guys to chase the bad guys is a losing proposition, because this is precisely the system that the bad guys have merged into, always a cashout away from disappearing completely. Mann isn’t an alarmist, he isn’t suggesting an any-means-necessary solution to cyberterrorism. He’s suggesting that no level of systematization can save us. In a scene from his preceding film, Public Enemies, bank-robbing celebrity John Dillinger stumbles into a room full of phones, part of a coast-to-coast bookie racket, while looking for a safe house. He is told in no uncertain terms that he is too public, too willingly infamous for them to give him shelter anymore. Instead of rejecting the law, they live within its margins, a life antithetical to the free-spirited Dillinger’s personal goal of total liberation. “I can hit any bank I want, any time," brags Dillinger in one scene. "They got to be at every bank, all the time.” In Blackhat, both cops and criminals have given themselves over completely to this sublimation of the individual into the flow of information. They are at every bank, all the time.

But if Public Enemies fell into the trap of romanticizing the motives of a psychopathic murderer, or worse, the cynical moral that the principles of rebels and lawmen are equally soul-destroying futilities, Blackhat offers something of a corrective: perhaps rejecting absolute systematization is not, in fact, a soul-destroying futility, but a soul-restoring one. As the story progresses, Hathaway takes more and more risks, breaks further and further from his at-first selfish motives, and rejects the intangible systems articulated by trillions of binary switches for a direct, intimate, personal solution: get close enough, fast enough. It’s no accident that Blackhat’s story gets easier to follow as it goes along, nor that this correlates with a more direct involvement of the love story in the crime fighting story; the most delightful surprise of its structure is the way it becomes a lovers-on-the-run story without sacrificing one iota of integrity or intelligence. Under the story’s jargon and globetrotting is a straight line that only gets straighter as it goes along.

This is, you may have surmised, not the stuff of a character study. Few people who watch Chris Hemsworth’s glowering slab of a performance would describe Hathaway as a detailed or complicated character, and I certainly would not be among them. But humanity is not determined by the length of a bullet-point list of traits and hobbies, and there is a difference between complication and complexity. In Mann’s cinema, humanity is not expressed through what people know, but through their willingness to explore what they don’t know. It’s at the core of Blackhat’s themes, and a prime motivator for his exploratory, ever-shifting formal maneuvers. It’s why the most spectacular, emotionally rousing shot of the film is a red-smeared zoetrope, with a crowd cascading one way, and two figures locked in chase walking the other, against the flow, at opposite extremes of the frame. Because, argues Mann, deep down we don’t want to submit to pat answers and traditions of quality and procedures and institutions that constrict our view of what we can do. We want to approach old, impossible questions with new answers.

Like any art that poses a Gordian knot to its audience, Blackhat is intimidating and even confusing at first, but rewards our attentions regardless of whether it ultimately succeeds or fails — and there is success in spades in this case. Blackhat is working with ideas so unusual that there is no standing shorthand to describe them. (What to call Mann’s improvisatory, reconstructive, yet highly precise approach? ‘Anti-d√©coupage’? Eat your hearts out, film theorists!) One may even wonder, as they watch Blackhat, if Mann was so gleefully adventurous that he never stopped — better put, never has stopped — and finished making his film. But the film is too dedicated to detail to feel lazy, too sumptuous and full to feel incomplete. So instead, the film seems positively alive, almost as though it is being made as we watch it. If Mann’s irritating habit of re-editing his films for each iterative home video release is the price we pay for the experience of watching cinema unfold spontaneously and immediately before our eyes, then so be it. That is, after all, what makes for a good thriller.


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