Michael Mann’s “Blackhat”: Vanishing into the Air
About thirty minutes into Michael Mann's “Blackhat”, Chen Lien tells Nick Hathaway, a hacker she is falling in love with, about having “to make intuitive choices” in the “wildest stream of decision-making.” “No transition time”, she says... She is obviously describing the situation Nick has found himself in, but she might as well be describing the intensity of the viewer’s experience.
Nick Hathaway is a character whom Michael Mann calls “a superhacker”, “someone who can seamlessly traverse the digital world and real world.” A superhero who is smart enough to hack banks using a cellphone and strong enough to beat the hell out of five people who are attacking him all at once. He can adapt to any situation. If he's locked in a cell, he immediately starts doing his “ironman push-ups.” He is also intellectual enough to read books by postmodernist philosophers such as Baudrillard, Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, about the “commodification of everyday life” or the “disciplinary technologies of power, including surveillance.” 1
Is Hathaway a perfect human being? Not at all, he has his weaknesses. Some even call him an “anti-hero” 2 . Enter Chen Lien who tells him to open his eyes when his narcissism is overtaking him. A preposterous statement such as “I did the crime, I'm doing the time, time isn't doing me” might sound good to the ear, but it is another form of prison. “You talk like you are still in prison. But you are not in prison” Chen Lien says.
“ She intuits that there’s something agoraphobic for him about this wide space at the airport” Mann says in an interview, “It’s disturbing him. He’s lost, and without a compass … He has been institutionalized to a greater degree than he’s aware of. She has an intuitive sense about him. That’s one of the unquantifiable connections that we have in life.” 3 And what does Nick see when he first opens his eyes? The surveillance camera that is watching them or as Mann himself calls it, the “exoskeleton”. “It’s almost like there’s an invisible kind of exoskeleton above the layer in which we think our lives take place on planet Earth, that’s made up of interconnectedness and data. […] We’re swimming around in it, and everything is totally porous, vulnerable and accessible.” 4 Mann says. The exoskeleton is invisible and intangible, and to make a film talking about it is being, according to Mann, “like a fish talking about the water it swims in.” 5
Mann also says that he understands “the appeal to a hacker” of “the ability to manipulate something as abstract as code while causing a kinetic effect in the real, physical world.” 6 The hacker never manipulates the ones and zeroes themselves, he/she uses something tangible as a keyboard to write an intangible code, an abstraction, to manipulate other abstractions through tangible electrical currents. A movie director also deals with tangibles and intangibles: an intangible story/idea, filmed with digital cameras, which are tangible, but deal with intangible zeroes and ones. And just like the hacker, the director also wishes to cause a kinetic, tangible effect on the audience, with intangible ramifications. A bit like James Joyce's “sound and shape and colour which are the prison gates of our soul.” 7
The tangibles and intangibles are so intertwined in “Blackhat” that the lines blur. Human connections are “unquantifiable”, therefore intangible, but they also are one of the most tangible things we have in life, amidst the streaming flux 8. The aesthetics of “Blackhat” also offer a similar feeling, concrete shapes and spaces, edited in such a way that they seem to dissolve into the air. An overdrive, which is so overwhelming that the individual moments, images, characters all lose their importance, and what remains is a gritty feeling of vulnerability, without fixity or reliable territories. It's not a coincidence that Hathaway's nickname is “ghostman”. It describes his unattainable desire of being a non-material unsurveillable presence. One could call “Blackhat” itself a ghost, a tactile ghost.
One of the clues to how Mann achieves this immaterial sensation can be found in the behind-the-scenes footage 9 : Mann is shooting many of the scenes with as many as three cameras, maybe more. There’s little chance that he carefully composed the shots for each camera. More likely, he believed he could achieve a different kind of aesthetics with a “smudgy, bumpy look” 10 by having these rough, uncomposed images. We also learn from an interview with Marc Ross, the production manager of the company dealing with the dailies, that he was using five different cameras in total, with different sensors, codecs and even with different frame-rates 11.
Another clue lies in the “patchy sound mix” 12 and the displeasure voiced by one of the film's composers, Harry Gregson-Williams, that his work wasn't used much 13 . Mann says "I worked with a number of composers on this one because I wanted different things from different people. It’s like casting actors. The film is an adventure of a narrative, and the story changes radically about three times, so there are very different conditions emotionally. That changes the music. So Atticus Ross does one thing, Harry Gregson-Williams does another thing, Ryan Amon does another thing, and then Mike Dean does something else.” 14 The feeling of all these changing melodies with different attitudes is disconcerting, and somehow uncanny, while being tangibly beautiful.
One of the counterpoints to this feeling of immateriality is how bloody & physical “Blackhat” is. Everything that enters a body, whether it's a bullet or a screwdriver, is visceral. Mann's camera stays close to Trang while he's dying, so that the pool of blood covers a good part of the screen. Or at the end, as Ryland Walker Knight describes wonderfully, “Nick stabs [Sadak] about twelve times in the chest, each one thumping and screeching in a hysterical hi-hat-bass-kick garage rage.” 15 No matter how far our imagination and abstractions takes us, we can't leave this tangible and fragile thing we call the body. A bit likes what Yeats writes in “Sailing To Byzantium”: “Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing / For every tatter in its mortal dress”. And how mortal it is in “Blackhat”! Every body we know closely (except two) is killed before the end, and none of these deaths is taken lightly.
Viola's death, for example. We look closely at her eyes, then cut to a skyscraper we might assume she is looking at. The monolithic skyscraper looks like a tomb. And what is a tomb other than something that makes tangible an intangible, namely a dead person? Bilge Ebiri also agrees that “the building becomes something spiritual and surreal, almost totemic.” 16 But it also reminds us the building Viola's husband died in which she talked about just a few minutes ago, and her conversation with Jessup, the last tangible human connection both will ever have.
In “Blackhat”, there is a specific emphasis on the interactions between people before the unexpected, unwelcome death. The most crucial one is Chen Lien's last hand-wave to her brother Chen Dawai, a sign of reconciliation which comes at just the right time, literally seconds before his car blows up. Or the tragic close-up of the car keys which Chen Lien throws to her brother in a preceding scene.
One of my favorite moments in “Blackhat” is also one of these pre-death interactions. In the park at Hong Kong, Nick gets police inspector Trang's android phone and spots the bluetooth device. When he's done, he throws the phone back at him from a few meters. From that understated moment, we can deduce that Nick knew enough about Trang that he believed he could catch the phone. We do not know what they shared in the short time Nick spent in Hong Kong but it was enough. And it's that human connection that makes Nick so angry when Trang is killed. There is an urgency to these shared experiences in “Blackhat”, because death is always around the corner.
Just like the blurry line between tangibility and intangibility, “Blackhat” is built on many false dichotomies. Bilge Ebiri talks about the “dance” between “hyperrealism and hyperabstraction.” 17 Manohla Dargis talks about Mann's “oscillation between action and introspection, transformation and stasis, exterior and interior realms” or mentions that the movie is “by turns brutal and sentimental, lovely and lurid, as serious as the grave and blissfully preposterous.” 18
One could talk in detail about all of these but what I would like to elaborate on is the blurred lines between good and evil. While Nick and Chen Lien care about their loved ones, and empathize with the people/animals whose villages will be flooded, Sadak coldly states after the death of his closest ally Kassar: “A lot of people die on this planet every day. What do you want me to do? Grieve? Because I knew him? He's not here anymore. Where's my money?”
But it’s also true that the person who describes Nick the best is his antagonist himself when he says “sometimes I wake up in the morning and I don’t even know who I am, where I am, in what country.” They are mirrors of each other, which is also emphasized by the title: Which one of them is the blackhat specified?
In any case, they both act with primal urges. It's not a coincidence that Nick's discovery of Sadak’s motivation to flood tin mines immediately follow his friend Chen Dawai's death. At that point he is both fighting against evil (or apathy, if you will) and planning to avenge the murder of Chen Dawai, Viola, Jessup, Trang, etc. who have become his tribe (an international tribe, but still). That's partly why he doesn't care one bit whether the final fight happens in the middle of a ritual, where innocent bystanders can be killed. Nick, walking against the flux, has become a driven entity, a primal urge. 19 The purpose is not to bring Sadak to justice, which Nick doesn’t care about one bit at that point. The purpose is to kill him, to take revenge. This stands in high contrast to the exorcising ritual being performed, ‘(culminating in a literal “Day of Silence”) as a way of asking for forgiveness and preserving cosmic balance.’ 20
The same primal drive is actually there since the very beginning in “Blackhat”. What is hacking, other than infiltrating into someone else's cyber-territory? Is this why Mann feels the need to show us the physical infiltration of electrical currents during the animated sequences? Is it that in an age where we are surrounded by a technological exoskeleton, our territorial compulsions are still the same? Is this why Viola doesn't feel the need to follow law & order, just because she lost her husband in 9/11?
Not that Mann is a big fan of law & order himself. He states: “Most of us live our lives within the confines of the judicial system we were born into, the political economy we were born into. A criminal, by self-definition, is outside of social mores and values.” 21 So Nick and Chen Lien, after their connections are loosened with all the authorities, are free in a new way. In the scene I mentioned earlier, Nick, just out of prison, looks at an empty space in the airport. Mann might be right that he is agoraphobic, but there is also the possibility of an escape, however small. The camera lingers enough for us to imagine the what if. But it looks impossible, he would have to vanish into the air. Our imagination of Nick’s potential escape becomes part of the experience of “Blackhat” and the feeling/idea of freedom that comes with it, expressed by the wide-open space, haunts us throughout the rest of the movie. Maybe this is also the clue to why Mann’s sky shots are so powerful?
Near the end, after all of their friends are dead, Nick's ankle monitor is cut-off and thrown to a boat. We come back to the scene where Viola and Jessup died and the camera pans down for no apparent reason. We discover Jessup’s cell phone with the surveillance app open, which is still following Nick’s ankle monitor. We see a green dot, which is supposed to spot Nick, sailing to the wide ocean with the boat. Nick has escaped surveillance. And the spot that nobody is looking at is being tricked to think that Nick is sailing into the ocean. The poetic image of Nick & Chen Lien sailing to the ocean is evoked, even though we know it’s not true.
At the end of “Blackhat”, the lovers are both outside the system while still being surveilled. As the final slowing down of the frame-rate in “Manhunter” expressed the utopic dream of stepping peacefully outside the flux, the defocusing at the end of “Blackhat” expresses a desire for vanishing, an urge to become immaterial.
I would like to thank Lorenzo Esposito for inviting me to write and Neslihan Tepehan, Can Eskinazi, Eytan Ipeker for their invaluable feedback.
1 Manohla Dargis, “Unshackled Hacker Dons a White Hat”, New York Times , 15 January 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/16/movies/blackhat-a-cyberthriller-starring-chris-hemsworth.html
2 Ryland Walker Knight, “The Speed of Causality: Michael Mann's "Blackhat"’, MUBI , 20 January 2015. https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/the-speed-of-causality-michael-manns-blackhat
3 Bilge Ebiri. “Michael Mann: A Director Caught Between the Real and the Abstract”, Vulture , 16 January 2015. http://www.vulture.com/2015/01/michael-mann-profile-career-blackhat.html
4 Melena Ryzik. “The Tech Changes, but Not the Crime: Michael Mann Prepares His New Film, Blackhat”, New York Times , 26 December 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/28/movies/michael-mann-prepares-his-new-film-blackhat.html
5 Jonathan Bernstein, “Michael Mann: the crime drama kingpin on murder and malware”, Guardian, 16 February 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/feb/16/michael-mann-blackhat-chris-hemsworth
6 Scott Foundas, “Michael Mann’s Upcoming Cyber Thriller ‘Blackhat’ is Frighteningly Timely”, Variety, 16 December 2014. http://variety.com/2014/film/news/michael-manns-upcoming-cyber-thriller-blackhat-is-frighteningly-timely-1201379805/
8 Jean-Baptiste Thoret, "Gravity of the Flux: Michael Mann’s Miami Vice", Senses of Cinema, Issue 42, February 2007. http://sensesofcinema.com/2007/feature-articles/miami-vice/
9 Blackhat: Behind the Scenes Full Movie Broll - Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis, Wei Tang, Michael Mann”, YouTube, ScreenSlam, 6 January 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eJSk81E2MmE
10 Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, "Michael Mann returns with the rough-and-tumble Blackhat", A.V. Club, 15 January 2015. http://www.avclub.com/review/michael-mann-returns-rough-and-tumble-blackhat-213818
11 Digital Video, “EC3 Goes Global on Workflow for ‘Blackhat’”, Connect 2 Media & Entertainment, 16 January 2015. http://www.c2meworld.com/creation/ec3-goes-global-on-workflow-for-blackhat/
12 Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, "Michael Mann returns with the rough-and-tumble Blackhat", A.V. Club, 15 January 2015. http://www.avclub.com/review/michael-mann-returns-rough-and-tumble-blackhat-213818
13 Jon Burlingame, “‘Blackhat’ Composer on His Complaints That Film Used Little of His Work”, Variety, 21 January 2015. http://variety.com/2015/artisans/production/though-credited-composer-says-little-of-the-blackhat-score-is-his-work-1201410107/
14 Angela Watercutter, "What Michael Mann Did to Get the Hackers in 'Blackhat' Right", Wired, 13 January 2015. http://www.wired.com/2015/01/michael-mann-blackhat/
15 Ryland Walker Knight, “The Speed of Causality: Michael Mann's "Blackhat"’, MUBI, 20 January 2015. https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/the-speed-of-causality-michael-manns-blackhat
16 Bilge Ebiri. “Michael Mann: A Director Caught Between the Real and the Abstract”, Vulture, 16 January 2015. http://www.vulture.com/2015/01/michael-mann-profile-career-blackhat.html
17 Bilge Ebiri. “Michael Mann: A Director Caught Between the Real and the Abstract”, Vulture, 16 January 2015. http://www.vulture.com/2015/01/michael-mann-profile-career-blackhat.html
18 Manohla Dargis, “Unshackled Hacker Dons a White Hat”, New York Times, 15 January 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/16/movies/blackhat-a-cyberthriller-starring-chris-hemsworth.html cyberthriller-starring-chris-hemsworth.html
19 Zach Campbell, “Blackhat”, Letterboxd, 16 January 2015. http://letterboxd.com/videodromology/film/blackhat/
20 Keith Uhlich, "The Fog of Cyberwar", Reverse Shot, 16 January 2015. http://reverseshot.org/reviews/entry/1989/blackhat
21 NPR Staff, "'Blackhat': A Classic Detective Story For A Brave New World”, NPR, 17 January 2015. http://www.npr.org/2015/01/17/377447142/blackhat-a-classic-detective-story-for-a-brave-new-world