Hacking into reality

Michael Mann’s Blackhat’

5 minute read
Mann's usual striking visuals: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth (© 2014 - Universal Pictures)
Mann's usual striking visuals: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth (© 2014 - Universal Pictures)

It's unlikely that even a filmmaker as sharp as Michael Mann actually planned the release of his new cybercrime epic Blackhat to coincide with the recent Sony hacking incident. But given his famously obsessive approach to research and meticulous detail, it's not surprising that his artistic visions ended up anticipating reality, even if reality ended up trumping the film's release.

Blackhat centers on Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), a criminal hacker (aka "blackhat") who's doing hard time in federal prison. When a Chinese nuclear plant blows its top and the cause is traced to an ingenious computer hack that sabotaged the cooling pumps, the People's Liberation Army cyberwarfare officer Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang), who’s been assigned to investigate, discovers that the attack was based on computer code that he has originally devised along with his former MIT roommate, Hathaway.

Chen arranges for Hathaway's temporary release (under FBI supervision) to help track down the perpetrator, a task that becomes even more urgent when another cyberattack hits the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and wreaks havoc with commodity prices. Hathaway soon realizes that the Chinese and Chicago exploits are only initial probes to set up an even bigger, more devastating scheme, and along with Chen, network expert Lien (Tang Wei), an FBI agent (Viola Davis), and a U.S. marshal (Holt McCallany), he sets out to find the culprit.

Dense, sleek, and complex

Michael Mann's films are dense, sleek, and complex, immersing the audience in various milieus: high-end professional crime (Thief, Heat), FBI psychological profiling (Manhunter) the international drug trade (Miami Vice), and corporate and media machinations (The Insider). Blackhat is no different. Its characters start throwing around esoteric computerese from the start, worrying about RATs and PLCs and packets and proxy servers, and though as usual Mann is careful to ensure that nothing goes unexplained, it's easy to get lost if you're not paying attention.

Mann's also known for innovative and creative visuals, and he doesn't disappoint here. Just as in the opening of his first feature film, Thief, when he took his camera through a microscope into the innards of a safe being drilled by master safecracker James Caan, Blackhat whisks us from the macroworld to the microscopic level of digital ones and zeroes flashing through microprocessors. Mann's night scenes of Hong Kong, shot entirely digitally (though he's shot parts of several previous films with the technology, Blackhat is his first work done completely on digital media), are lush and gorgeous, his locations exotic and meticulously rendered.

Been there, done that

But while all of Mann's strengths are in evidence in Blackhat, so are his weaknesses. His signature style and technophilic, starkly philosophical outlook are now so well-established that they feel almost rote. Although his work is always supremely intelligent and sophisticated, and impeccably realized on every technical and artistic level, one doesn't go to a Michael Mann film expecting to see virtuosic acting performances plumbing new depths of human emotion. His protagonists are generally stoic male professionals possessed of almost grim dedication to their work, with equally serious and no-nonsense women who either back up the hero on the job or serve as a sort of Greek chorus/romantic interest (and sometimes, as in Blackhat, both). Everyone has a mission, and it's the most important thing in their lives — there's no room for frivolity or kidding around. (For all their considerable virtues, Mann's films are perhaps the most humorless of any major filmmaker.)

All of which makes Blackhat a somewhat frustrating exercise for a long-time Mann fan such as myself. Mann does what he does better than anyone else, carving out an artistic niche for himself that's unique in American film. His 1990s epics, Heat and The Insider, are the apotheosis of his vision, with the latter arguably his masterpiece. He's yet to reach that same level again. He's, dare I say it, stuck in something of a rut. True, it's a rut that some of us aficionados are happy to revisit and wallow in. But I, for one, would like to see Mann stretch himself more.

Illuminating our vulnerability

Setting aside artistic arguments, though, Blackhat succeeds brilliantly on one level that recent real-world events have made even more important: demonstrating how the Internet's ubiquitous presence in our 21st-century civilization has made us all vulnerable in ways both dangerous and profound. In this department, Mann's research pays off: Allowing for the inevitable dramatic license here and there, Blackhat features perhaps the most accurate depictions of hacking and cybercrime that have yet to come from Hollywood.

Many people still fail to grasp that computer and Internet security depend ultimately not on software and hardware, but on the human element. Even the most secure system in the world can be compromised by simple laziness, carelessness, or ignorance. Cybercrooks exploit that fact to get people to click the wrong link, reveal personal data, or insert a questionable USB drive into a dataport to download malicious software, all of which Hathaway does in Blackhat. Computer security experts call it "social engineering," but most everyone else would call it an age-old con game — one that still works.

And that, perhaps, is the main take-home lesson of Blackhat. However much our technology evolves, changes, and advances, human nature remains the same — not just the negatives like venality and corruption, but also the positives like ingenuity, persistence, and loyalty. But the exponentially increasing interconnectedness and interdependence that computers and the Internet have wrought also allow the potential for damage to be ever more serious and substantial, with the real possibility of taking down not just a bank but an entire national economy, or the killing of not just a handful but thousands. In that dark sense, even Blackhat barely scratches the surface.

For a look at what some cybersecurity experts think of Blackhat, see

What, When, Where

Blackhat. Michael Mann directed. Screenplay by Morgan Davis Foehl. Philadelphia area showtimes.

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