The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.

Written by James Slaymaker.

Photo from the article “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”.

-Michael Mann

Roughly 3 quarters of the way into Blackhat, there’s an image of Hathaway and Chen Lien embracing in front of an exploding car. By this point in the narrative, Hathaway is a fugitive of his own state, wanted by the U.S. government as well as a being targeted by a syndicate of international cyber-terrorists. He was officially released from jail on the condition that he be fitted with a tracking device that allows for his every movement to be monitored. However, having illegally hacked into government software to retrieve information vital to the hunting of said terrorists, he, knowing that he’s now a target, ditched the device. By removing all electronic traces of his existence, Hathaway has essentially become a non-entity, removing himself from the network of mainstream society. He knows that he can’t live in this state for long and begs Chen Lien to leave him lest she similarly become an outcast, and Chen Lien tearfully agrees. Yet, when the car is blown up at this exact moment, her brother - seemingly her only close companion other than Hathaway - is killed, and she is severed from all emotional ties to the network. Agreeing to join him, the two live out a brief idyll, momentarily sheltered from the invasive eye of the surveillance state. Within public spaces, they craft a private sphere. It’s a sequence that recalls the Havana retreat in Miami Vice. As in that film, the two central lovers enjoying a self-constructed simulacra of paradise that’s by nature ephemeral.

Like Godard, Mann portrays digitization as a force that holds the potential for both liberation and fascistic entrapment. Godard is interested in the camera: portable, cheap DV cameras allow everybody who desires it to produce high and distribute high quality images, but they’re also used for overwhelming surveillance, placing every citizen under constant scrutiny. Mann is more interested in the computer: Hathaway is a brilliant hacker, which means that he can re-tool the technologies of the state in order to serve his own needs, but the police state is so powerful that it always pushes back with much greater force. Hathaway’s backstory is telling: starting his career as a Robin Hood figure, re-wiring funds from the bank accounts of the wealthy to give to the poor, and he was rapidly hunted down by the FBI like a glitch that needed to be corrected to keep things running smoothly, and then thrown into prison. Digitization is a tool that has the potential to be democratic, but it has been co-opted by the state into a means by which fascism can be spread. This theme is prevalent in Mann’s 3 most recent films (the other two being Public Enemies and Miami Vice) which, as I mentioned in my short review, form something of a closely related trilogy, yet Blackhat is unique in that its protagonist is not only enslaved by hyper-technology, but also has the ability to usurp the system in order to free himself.

Mann’s portrayal of the modern city as a vast, interpersonal network is interesting when considered along with his employment of masculine iconography, particularly how it relates to the ideology of western individualism and macho cowboy imagery. As I said in my short review, Dillinger’s downfall in Public Enemies is staged as the death of the last true vigilante. When we’re first introduced to Dillinger, he gleefully lives a life on the margins, an outlaw who operates by his own, personal set of honour and is rewarded for it. As the narrative develops, the technological power of the then-nascent FBI grows exponentially, which Mann explicitly relates to state control of surveillance, finance and telecommunications. The FBI are now endowed with the overwhelming power to chart his every movement and predict possible future courses of action, and Dillinger, facing this threat that’s devoted to gradually weeding him out, simply can’t continue to sustain his lone-wolf lifestyle. Dillinger realizes this as he watches Manhattan Melodrama at the cinema. Looking at the antics of Clark Gable’s charming gangster Blackie, he sees a reflection of himself, and realizes that the kind of heroism he aspires to has become an anachronistic novelty. He chooses to martyr himself, and is, in turn, transformed into a legend - "To become immortal, and then to die." This is one of the emotional lynch-pin scenes Mann loves to structure his films around, but he usually does so in the form of a dialogue between one man and another who is either his mirror image or an idealized lover who he sees as an exit route from his unsatisfactory life: the cafe conversation between Neil and Vincent in Heat, Frank explaining his domestic aspirations to Jessie. Unusually, in Public Enemies the scene is silent, and it’s a man reflecting on an image.

If Public Enemies is the story of a stranger to the network trying his best to keep himself removed from it, Miami Vice is the story of a man who resents his position as a cog in the system yet can’t conceive of a way to break free. In fact, he’s kept in such a state of Heideggerian alienation that he can’t even comprehend the system’s inner workings. The only way Crockett can retain his essential humanity is by dreaming of an escape, though he ultimately becomes resigned to its impossibility. Crockett is the embodiment of the vigilante spirit trapped within a world of vanishing privacy and constant surveillance.

Both of these movies feature central sequences set in artificial, self-constructed Edens: Dillinger retreats with his beau Blackbird to his forest Cabin, located in a stretch of land that is thoroughly off the grid (though this idyll is violently destroyed in one the film’s best sequences), while Crockett escapes with Isabella to a vacation spot in Havana, a getaway designed to be nothing more than a temporary break. In both cases, though these trysts are short-lived, they allow them to enjoy a short-lived privacy.

The aforementioned tryst in Blackhat bears many similarities to these scenes, the way it warps a recurrent Mann motif is telling, particularly how it relates to the film’s idiosyncratic engagement with the issues of digitization, and temporality. This alternate take aims to explore the significance this scene has within the context of the film’s thematic interest in the tension between hyper-modernity and nostalgia. This article will therefore reflect on the effects of nostalgia for the physical in relation to the film’s narrative and cinematic context, considering the employment of anachronistic imagery in the film within the larger context of Mann’s preoccupation with fascism in post-industrial society.

When Hathaway removes his tracking device, the resulting isolation liberates he and Chen Lein not only from the personal and professional ties that connect them to mainstream society, but the commodification of time and personal relations that characterize life within it. For once, the couple don’t feel an obligation to wider social responsibilities and institutions; all they need to do is look out for themselves and one another. When Hathaway is released from prison, he needs to negotiate the conditions of his freedom, eventually arriving at the agreement that his sentence will be commuted if he successfully locates and apprehends the individuals responsible for a recent attack on a nuclear plant. This scene is staged as if an economic exchange taking place - with Hathaway only being deemed as valuable insofar as he can contribute services to the U.S. government - and, subsequently, Hathaway feels an intense pressure to make the most of every moment. Pointedly, all of the major relationships in the film begin as professional ones, and Hathaway describes his attempts to make the most out of his prison time by shunning interpersonal connections and focusing his energy entirely on “working on [his] body and his mind”. Throughout, we’re reminded that Hathaway only has the illusion of freedom, as his actions are tracked by the state to ensure he doesn’t cross the boundaries of space they’ve laid out for him. In the subway car following the explosion, Hathaway and Chen Lein are successfully removed from the intense speed and dehumanizing monetary demands of the network. Hathaway still feels the pressure of running to evade capture, telling Chen Lein at one point “we’ve got to grieve later, we’ve got to survive”. But, despite this, the qualities of intimacy and peace dominates the sequence so powerfully it seems that Hathaway and Chi Len are finally free from the constant stream of information and future-orientated temporality.

When working within the strict official structures of the network their perception of the world had been mediated through screens and invisibility, what now takes over is an emphasis on physicality and visibility. Their intense focus on physical movement and extreme bodily sensations serve as a counterpoint to the realm of the abstract they were previously ensnared in, wherein physical actions were tracked using digital technology, transformed into abstract, intangible data, which could then be manipulated via physical actions (fingers on a typewriter) to produce more intangible code that would produce real world effects. As many critics have pointed out, the final confrontation between Hathaway and Sadak is particularly gruesome and visceral, with Hathaway stabbing him an extensive number of times in the center of a religious procession. This is the fulfilment of the desire Hathaway harbours throughout the latter half of the film to re-situate the central conflict from the realm of the abstract to the realm of the physical and the immediate.

As the two speak over the phone, Sadak reveals: “Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I don’t even know who I am, where I am, in what country”. Sadak’s dialogue betrays his desire to operate entirely within the immaterial realm. While Hathaway believes in the values of individual honour, as well as desiring to hone his “body” and his “mind” in equal measure, Sadak sees athleticism, as well as cultural and personal stability, as obsolete in the post-industrial criminal world. The mind is now the most powerful tool, as large-scale attacks can be programmed, intangible money re-routed. Unlike the bank robber Dilinger, Sadak has no desire to be celebrated for his crimes, he desires to remain anonymous. As Jean-Baptiste Thoret writes: “The post-urban (and post-human) world of Miami Vice is a confused, fragmented and controlled world that holds together only by the financial flux that crosses it and the electronic images (surveillance cameras, radars, computer screens, etc.) recreating the simulacrum. There is no other logic than that of offer and demand, of movement in all directions imposed by economic private interests”. The same could be said of Blackhat’s world, and Sadak is the embodiment of the new variety of criminal that thrives within it.

Hathaway, on the other hand, has a desire to master a traditional, outmoded image of masculine heroism, as well as a romanticized view of seclusion and individualism, that registers as profoundly nostalgic. Even though Hathaway is extremely technologically gifted, thus giving him mobility within the realm of cyber-capital, his personal values and goals evoke nostalgic feelings about the development of American society throughout the 20th century. This quality is shared by nobody else in the film. For example, in the scene in which Chen Lien asks him about his time in prison, he argues that he didn’t allow loneliness to get to him during his time secluded in a cell, as it gave him time to work on personal improvement, to which Chen Lien responds, incredulously, that he needs to stop talking like he’s still inside. She can’t comprehend the notion that a person may be able to achieve anything when they’re removed from wider institutions and affiliates. What we hear of Hathaway’s backstory (brief though it may be) is revealing:

“I was in a bar. I met some girl, and some guy got in my face about her. He starts a fight and, when it’s over, he’s in the hospital and I’m arrested. I wound up sentenced to 18 months in MCI North, and I traded academia for gladiator academy […] Then I got out. I was 22 and there’s not a lot going on in Silicon Valley for an ex-con with no degree, so…”

“Credit card fraud?”

“That and international wholesale. I had an 8 year run, then the feds caught up with me and I 1got 13 years.”

“Do you have regrets?”

“Regrets? No. Only the banks were duped. I didn’t hurt people. I do not hurt people”.

Hathaway reflects on how his rebellious streak, narcissism and casual disrespect for larger institutions render him unable to thrive within his field, and feels an implicit nostalgia for a time when all these qualities would’ve made him a highly valuable vigilante-hero, able to operate free from ties to a collective power and able to outrun his enemies. Although he is resistance to the overly formalistic systems of the post-industrial world and is annoyed by the rigid man-made forms that surround him, Hathaway’s thinking is, to an extent, shaped by this dominant social discourse, and finds it difficult to free himself entirely from the logic of economic exchanges and labour value as a measure of a person’s worth. He is alienated within the grid of glass, chrome, and electronic figures Mann portrays the modern city as, feeling overwhelmed by the over-abundance of sensory information that bombards him. Reflecting the centrality of this theme, Mann’s compositions regularly align the viewer with Hathaway’s ambivalence. One recurrent visual strategy is to begin on a profile (or ¾ profile) of Hathaway staring into space, followed by a reframing of the camera to take in the view of abstractions that exist within these rigid, man-made shapes (often abstracted by the use of shallow focus into a collage-like field of coloured electric lights). Through such shots, Mann suggests the desire for freedom from the collectives of modern civilization, and delineates the relationship between nostalgia and individualism based on a violent rupturing of contemporary, post-human forms.

The fact that Hathaway and Chen Lien spend the final act of the film in a state of physical transit emphasizes the sense of paranoia and geographical and temporal displacement that being an outsider to the system instils. Chen Lien is the only character with which Hathaway feels free to reflect on his early years, before his coding skills had made him a figure of threat in the eyes of the government. He describes his childhood to her in a post-coital scene, as if the intense physical experience meant for him a figurative return to a more primitive state: “My dad was a steel worker same as his father. He raised us on his own. Came to visit twice, then he got sick. I used to replay memories”. Pointedly, the profession of Hathaway’s father is one associated with industrial labour, of the sort of job increasingly marginalized as the financial sphere becomes increasingly central to the U.S. economy and material labour is outsourced to overseas countries for western consumption. That Hathaway spent so much time in prison “replay[ing] memories” signals not only a yearning for the innocence of his youth, but a desire to return to an earlier period in American history, and his inability to realize such a dream renders him a tragic figure. Notably, Hathaway is the only character who delivers any information about his past, and thus situates himself within a concrete temporality and geography. Pointedly, Hathaway’s anecdote is drowned out by the groaning industrial sound design in the middle, as if to suggest the irrelevance of biographical information in this post-human environment. Just as mass corporatizations render national identity increasingly obsolete, so too are the characters stripped of individualist traits, forced by their circumstances to remain focused entirely on the future or the present moment. In fact, Hathaway’s nostalgia is juxtaposed with Sadak’s gleeful disregard for the past; his thoughts are entirely directed towards the future. When a comrade of his is gunned down, he instantly shrugs it off, saying: “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?” Later, he gloats “if I stop thinking about anything, it disappears”. Sadak explicitly reminds Hathaway of his obsolescence: “you were never in the game. You’re a glorified carder. A carder whose time has reached its exploration date. Your shelf life is over”. The old-school outlaw mythology Hathaway psychologically identifies with has been eclipsed by the faceless mass of the syndicate, an organization as elaborate and intricate as the enforces of the law, who similarly achieve power through obtaining the powers of surveillance.

The contrast between these two perceptions of temporality form the structural basis of Mann’s film. Hathaway is implicitly plagued by a feeling of lack and longs to return to his youth, while Sadak is only concerned with the near future of his monetary accumulation. They are both connected in that they both experience a sensation of displacement from the present moment, yet their respective viewpoints are so different they have difficulty comprehending each other. The huge gulf in their views of time is the driving force of their conflict, as each one seems to threaten the existence of the other.

This argument may seem odd considering that Hathaway’s skills are connected to the sphere of cyber-capital, yet, throughout the narrative, his attitudes seem firmly outdated. Hathaway expresses no particular loyalty to his own government (after all, he, like Sadak, is a fugitive) and no particular political leanings. He appears to be driven mostly by a desire to have his prison sentence commuted, as well as a sense of resentment at the syndicate’s audacity in plagiarizing one of the codes he developed. Hathaway is the only character in Blackhatfundamentally cut off from a wider network of individuals - even after being released from jail and teaming up with the FBI, he is regularly reminded of his status as an outsider by his superior, Carol. This status renders him more or less powerless in a society where power is held by collectives, as evidenced by an early scene where, despite his fierce will and impressive athleticism, he’s quickly tackled to the ground by a group of prison guards, who overpower him through their sheer abundance. At first, Hathaway is only able to seize a small amount of power by manipulating small loopholes within established, corporatized systems, and is kept in a state of structured ignorance by the syndicate for a large portion of the narrative. Sadak’s crew gain power from any kind of physical activity, but by using the vast resources at their disposal to suit his ends (resources which enable them to carry out attacks from a great distance, keeping them at a fundamental remove from potentially dangerous activity). This explains Hathaway’s intense desire to re-locate the central conflict of the narrative from the abstract to the physical sphere, where he’s sure to come out on top.

Mann’s formal design places Hathaway’s subjective perception of lack, on a meta-fictional level, within the cinematic context of post-film cinema. Mann’s late style is rooted firmly in what Steven Shaviro calls “post-continuity”. Put simply, recent revolutions in digital shooting editing methods have removed much of the physical dimension of cinema, both in terms of distribution (rather than existing as celluloid reels, most contemporary movies are circulated as immaterial digital files) and production itself. In his phone call to Sadak, Hathaway calls him out for his privileging a “virtual world”, in which everything appears as “just a game” as opposed to the real one. For Hathaway, this means that Sadak intentionally keeps himself at a distance from the actual so he perceives violence and theft through the lens of a digitized screen and hence lessens its impact, rather than facing the heavy consequences that his actions have on the outside world. For Hathaway, widespread digitization increases our alienation from the material, and hence breeds self-absorption, immorality, or, at least, apathy.

As Ignatiy Vishnevetsky writes, “whereas film stocks are prized for their distinctive characters, production-grade digital formats are prized for their range - their ability to produce many different images from the same information”. Increasingly, the majority of image-design work is done in post-production; the profilmic image is seen as merely raw material to be molded into the final product. An over-exposed shot can be altered later to fix the exposure, and a flat captured image can be manipulated by a colour grader to tint it a certain shade and make particular shades pop. D. N. Rodowick argues: “the material basis of photography, as well as film, is a process of mechanically recording an image through the automatic registration of reflected light on a photo-sensitive chemical surface”. While the analogue arts “have as their basis a transformation of substance isomorphic with an originating image”, digital ones “derive all their powers from numerical manipulation”. Calum Marsh notes the fundamental difference between digital and analogue capture that most digitally-shot films attempt to efface: “The relationship between the “profilmic” event being captured through the lens and the physical impression recorded on the film is direct and isomorphic, producing a strong indexical link between the moment and its filmic record. Where the photochemical process transcribes, digital capture translates, and in doing so weakens that crucial indexical link”.

Many of the processes that used to be physical now take place within a digital realm. The editing room vanishes, elaborate lighting set-ups are no longer a necessity, if a particular lens isn’t available, its effects can be replicated in post. Choices about framing and rhythm made on set are indistinguishable from choices made long after. The shot is no longer the product of a number of real world elements captured by the frame, it’s now the composite of many decisions made before and after the time of capture. Editing used to be a lengthy material process, involving the physical cutting and re-arrangement of frames. Sophisticated nonlinear editing can be done on simple laptops, and makes it much easier to try out different combinations and ideas. As a result, it’s now possible to string together scenes without much need for planning. Because of the inexpensiveness of digital, lots of takes can happen, lots of cameras capturing one thing at once. This means that now shots are strung together with a lack of need for continuity. Without the need for expansive grander plans, directors now have the freedom to record as much visual information as they want and not worry about how it’s all going to cohere until the non-linear editing process. Since 2001’s Ali, Mann has demonstrated an interest in seeking out the unique aesthetic properties of DV cinematography, and often sought to make the friction between the analogue and the virtual, in part, the subjects of his films. Mann made the link clear in an interview with Variety, in which he explained that what largely appealed to him about the figure of the computer hacker was his “ability to manipulate something as abstract as code while causing a kinetic effect in the real, physical world.”

Mann’s ambivalent attitude towards digital technology is expressed not only through the form of the film but also through the trajectory of Hathaway’s narrative arc. Hathaway’s aforementioned speech about the dangerous, alienating effects becoming ensnared in a “virtual world” is symbolically connected to his own experience of being targeted by omnipresent, technology-empowered forces who are invisible to him. In the same way that the digital arts no longer rely on an immediate relationship with the real world to produce results, neither do crime-fighters, who can now conduct most their work from behind the security of a computer screen and employ surveillance to target and expel their targets. The final shot of the film is of Hathaway and Chen Lien in an airport, still running, wearing sunglasses in a desperate bid to retain their anonymity. As they walk through a crowd, the camera pulls back to reveal that they’re being caught on multiple surveillance cameras at once. The image makes it clear that the private sphere has entirely been eroded, and the only hope for somebody like Hathaway is to become a part of the system or to become an exile from it.

In earlier Mann films, his style seemed grounded within traditional continuity methods: establishing shots, reverse shots, a unity of place and time, deep focus for wide shots and shallow focus for close-ups and medium shots. Mann’s stylistic extravagances were grounded within this more conventional visual scheme. Despite their impressionistic flourishes, Mann’s work leading up to Miami Vice was linear and grounded within the conventions of traditional continuity, but his 3 most recent films have been substantially more elliptical and oblique in terms of both plot construction and aesthetic design. They’re built on jump cuts and cutaways, largely absent from his earlier films. Though it would be misguided to pin Mann’s late style evolution entirely on the development of certain filmmaking technologies, I believe that his tastes have grown increasingly fragmented and abstract in tandem with these developments.

David Bordwell writes of the aesthetic properties of the post-continuity action film: “camerawork and editing [don’t] serve the specificity of the action but overwhelm[…], even bury it”. Snatches of action are stitched together rapidly as to render spatial and temporal continuity vague; action is blurry and smeared, sometimes to the point of impressionism; each shot maps a fragment of an action rather than an action itself. In his piece on Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor’s Gamer, Stephen Shaviro explains: “In post-continuity films, unlike classical ones, continuity rules are used opportunistically and occasionally, rather than structurally and pervasively. Narrative is not abandoned, but it is articulated in a space and time that are no longer classical. For space and time themselves have become relativized or unhinged”. As Shaviro goes on to argue, the physical has been removed from filmmaking, just as it has from the finance industry, and this fundamental lack is observable in the very styles of the films themselves: “We enter into the spacetime of modern physics; or better, into the “space of flows”, and the time of microintervals and speed-of-light transformations, that are characteristic of globalized, high-tech financial capital […] The post-continuity action style is expressive of, as well as being embedded within, the delirium of globalized financial capitalism, with its relentless processes of accumulation, its fragmentation of older forms of subjectivity, its multiplication of technologies for controlling perception and feeling on the most intimate level, and its play of both embodiment and disembodiment”.

Although Mann’s style is considerably more refined and streamlined than the hyper-active sensory overload of, say, Neveldine/Taylor and Tony Scott Shaviro was describing, I believe that Mann’s increasingly fragmented approach is rooted in a similar philosophy. Mann deliberately foregrounds the immaterial nature of his images to reflexively comment on the nature of digital culture. The highly elliptical and hyper-compressed nature of Mann’s approach in Blackhat is used to reflect on the fragmentation, geographical and temporal compression of the post-human society he’s exploring. Such a visual scheme materializes Hathaway’s sensation of longing for the physical. When, early on, Chen Lien describes Hathaway’s role as requiring a need to “make intuitive choices” within the “wildest stream of decision-making”, she, at a meta-fictional level, alludes to the shifting role of the filmmaker in the digital era.

At first, Hathaway is able to adapt to his surroundings fairly effortlessly. When placed in a cell, he immediately devotes his time to doing push-ups and developing his critical thinking skills by reading books by postmodern philosophers (Baudrillard, Foucault, Lyotard, et al). He also tries to efface his true nature, reducing himself purely to use value. Without realizing it, he’s partially internalized the values of a post-human society. He’s repeatedly spoken about as if he’s little more than a bargaining chip. He has to negotiate the conditions of his release, making the case that his potential benefits to the U.S. defence department would outweigh the potential threat of letting a convicted felon into the general populace. This technique reflects the discourse of economic exchange. Hathaway constitutes to them no more than a tool who can be used to achieve the system’s particular ends, and is of little worth outside that. Even after he’s released from jail, he’s placed under constant surveillance on the understanding that if he transgressing the boundaries set out for him (i.e. the structures that will get the most value out of him), then he’ll return to confinement. To the FBI, his use-value predominates his existence as a person. Hathaway must work within these capitalist channels and treat himself as a commodity in order to obtain his goals. Despite his disdain from his status as a value-object, he’s only able to navigate this world when he treats himself as one. It’s not until later that he’s able to consciously conceptualize his subconscious feeling of lack and manipulate data to create a material and specialized sphere in which he can thrive. This context adds meaning to Mann’s decision to stage the climax of the film as a knife fight set against a religious procession. After so much of the action has taken place within immaterial realms, it only makes sense for the endpoint to be a sphere both intensely material and inflected with abstract human concepts. A religious ceremony enshrines human actions with traditions of symbolism and obscure belies; such an engagement with cultural and temporal specificity resists the impulse to transform humans and cultures into homogenized data. Therefore, the odd staging highlights Hathaway’s status as a man drawn to an outdated temporality; in essence, he’s re-rooted the central conflict to a sphere that entirely vilifies his nostalgic retreat to the past. For the first time, actions aren’t de-contextualized within the anonymous space of the city, they’re tied to cultural tradition. It’s this creation of such a space which constitutes the central arc of the film.

This Alternate Take was published on February 11, 2016.

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