Early in Michael Mann’s cyber thriller, Blackhat, Special Agent Barrett (played sturdily as ever by Viola Davis) threatens an official with an overly-dramatic line about making the “intangible” into the “tangible.” The point isn’t the dialogue itself, and in a film filled with over-caffeinated visual poetry stuffed with comments about the contemporary dichotomization of above ground and through-the-net politics this moment surely doesn’t standout. Yet, in this line, much of Mann’s overarching themes come to the surface. In a world now threatened by a warfare happening between what we can see and what we can’t, even if right before our eyes, the blurriness of tangible and intangible holds the keys to our future. While Blackhat at first seems to align in contradiction with this greater point by reducing that future to a few hours of action-packed entertainment, by the end everything between the first nuclear reaction explosion and the mano-a-mano climax adds up to a symmetry between the tangible and intangible.
Mann’s films have always, to a degree, lived in the area between what the world can understand and what it can’t. Most “normals” are hidden from the narratives. Instead these stories concern only the specialists that inhabit whatever central plot fires at the forefront. The sense one gets from watching a Mann movie is that these characters are the very best at what they do. Whether it’s Muhammad Ali’s world class boxing prowess or John Dillinger’s bank robbing success rate, these are the cream of the crop. The rest of us dictated by these powerful people, just as we go along in our simple lives. Never has this been more prevalent than Blackhat, which culminates in a stakeout and bloody fight that occurs between oblivious Jakartans walking straight lines in prayer. Only the threat of gunfire makes the marchers take notice of a threat looming right next to them. This staging turns humans into the mirror of the straight lines Mann showed us through a breathtaking CGI opening that races into a computer only to pop out on the other side where a shadowy hacker resides before reversing back into the computer and bursting out with the impact of a nuclear reactor explosion. Violence occurs through the internet just as it will through the lines of bodies two hours later. Cyber violence may be new, but the psychology of this violence remains primal.
Next to Mann’s filmography Blackhat thematically resembles past work, but also feels altogether different. Namely, in Blackhat, the protagonist has no obvious antagonist. Mann has always matched the specific expertise of his “good guy” with a counterpart (i.e. Sonny Crockett/Ricardo Tubbs or Jeffrey Wigand/Lowell Bergman) or a counterpoint (i.e. Will Graham/Francis Dollarhyde or John Dillinger/Melvin Purvis) who acts as a perfect foil to a genius who is otherwise unmatched. The conflict can only be propelled forward by the existence of an equal force of intelligence. Additionally, the characters are fit with real emotions that make their robotic skills into human traits. Almost halfway through Blackhat, conspicuously missing is that force that will push Chris Hemsworth’s unparalleled hacker to the brink of his abilities. As such, Hemsworth’s frequent “putting it all together” moments come off as silly. However, thought of as a dream-scape where everything is happening between the lines (read: the internet), faster than even the best hackers can keep up with, the comedy feels intentional. At least since the Miami Vice series, there’s been a cartoonish looseness to Mann’s delivery, that makes a jagged fit with his sensual visual rhythm. He dabbles in genre, if for no other reason than to work in shorthand and explore complex themes. Taken at face value, abrupt, if sometimes downright silly, tone shifts can be frustrating. Hence why Blackhat’s plot is one big macguffin and it’s only in that final dream-like shootout that Mann makes clear what he’s had at work since the skillful CGI opening.
In a climate where the enemy is unseen, nobody and everybody has the power to be the expert by achieving ultimate recognition. And like Dillinger, people can gain infamy without ever being discovered. Crime has always been on Mann’s mind and everything related to the psychological highs of criminal behavior has fueled his narratives. Even Muhammad Ali is pushed by the high of being a beloved villain whose identity remains entangled within a myriad of taunts and performance art. When the antagonist behind the Blackhat’s central scheme is finally revealed, he says he’s out only for money and nothing else. He has no greater purpose. No idealism. No ethos. Just wants a little bit of money. But also, as we know, a little bit of the high that comes from literally getting under international skin. And this is Mann’s point. Perhaps Blackhat is his most cynical movie because there was always something cathartic about believing his characters possessed skills that could never be duplicated. Unlike Ali or Neil McCauley, who are the best at their crafts, Hathaway blurs back into the fabric of civilization to never be seen again, but there’s other experts out there doing exactly what he can do, now only better.