I am not supposed to like Blackhat, or so I am told. I am told it has a poorly focused narrative, that it is messy, and that it is reckless. I am told that it is emotionally inert. If this is so, then my conception of emotion is very different from the majority of the modern viewing public. It seems as though people have forgotten that most Michael Mann films boast questionable screenplays and know not emotion in their narrative. It seems viewers have misplaced their understanding of who Michael Mann is, for Blackhat boasts the same strengths and weaknesses of any Mann film, and in some ways its successes are even greater than anything he has made since the turn of the century. Blackhat is, at the level of narrative, poorly focused, messy, reckless, and perhaps emotionally inert, but it is not artistically anything of these, and the same can arguably be said of any of Mann’s films.
At such a basic level, Mann’s body of work is of the European school of style-as-substance. He directs films where look and mood and color refract onto the mind and tell the story far more readily than the script. Those searching for an air-tight narrative arc in a Michael Mann film clearly do not know Michael Mann. What separates a good Mann film from a bad Mann film (or an effective vs ineffective Mann film) is not the quality of the script but how much leniency Mann is willing to give that script. His best works are highly stylized and paint no facade of realism. His best film, Thief, is a highly impressionist work about abstract ideas taking precedence over realism, a fractal, excitingly icy change of pace from the thick-on-the-ground gritty realist works so prominent throughout the time period, and a film where the filmmaking is the narrative.
For the past fifteen years or so, Mann’s chief tool to this effect has been his much adored and often abused digital cinematography. Having a love and (mostly) hate relationship with this particular medium of telling a film story has begot much soul-searching over the years, for to the deepest core of my existence, I know two truths to be self evident: digital cinematography is an ungainly drag, and Michael Mann is a supremely talented filmmaker capable of doing more with the art of cinematic storytelling than most anyone else in the game now. A difficult conundrum, but Blackhat generously provides a solution: the realization that digital cinematography is not fundamentally crippled, but that most directors merely use it in misguided, crippled ways.
Not Michael Mann though. So many directors use it these days as a budgetary force and then go out of their way to hide it by using it to “realist” purposes, only to create a sort of glossy, over-produced, sheeny hyper-realism that plays like a bastard step-child of the idea of realism. Michael Mann, however, understands digital cinematography because he realizes it’s one potent truth: it has strengths, but they are not generally “to make things look more real”. For Mann’s purposes, however, that of dissecting the modern human race in a world where the species has turned to dissecting itself through technology at the expense of its soul, digital cinematography is a blessing in disguise. With its complete lack of grain and heavily manipulated color and space, digital cinematography is a waxy, artificial look for an artificial people, and nothing can better distill the techno-heavy falsity of the characters at the core of Mann’s Blackhat.
This, if nothing else, is the chief innovation ofBlackhat, that it has a central storyline precisely suited for the exact style Mann has spent years perfecting. It is, after all, a work about hackers who replace living through people with living through technology, and a medium of film that replaces hard-won grain and texture with a tech-heavy false form of realism is perfect for the material. It is not for no reason that Mann’s previous work, Public Enemies, felt a bit off – it used exactly the same technique with no sense of the immanent tension in using digital cinematography to produce something real, and it very obviously tried only to create something realistic. Mann is not a realist director; his heart just isn’t in it. Everything he builds his films up on is, if not anti-realist, about as close as any major American director dares venture these days, and the spirit of Public Enemies does not fit.
It is also not for no reason that describing the formal plot of Blackhat is almost irrelevant, except to say that it is exactly the tale of a Type-A male hacker (headed by Chris Hemsworth’s pouty “I’m a serious actor now” face) inadvertently invading unsafe places, not knowing how to say “when”, and being pushed under the whims of government control you’d expect it to be. Yet, in spite of its narrative failures (and maybe because it is fundamentally aware of its emotionally barren, narratively insufficient core), Blackhat succeeds. The effect is not unlike what Robert Elswit achieved just a few short months ago with Nightcrawler, using sleek digital cinematography to create an intentionally artificial recreation of the mind of a man who cares nothing for humanity and everything for a certain form of technology he holds dear. Steven Soderbergh, the only other major American director to use digital cinematography with an eye for artistic expression and impressionist storytelling rather than as a ruse, achieved the same effect a couple of years back with his anti-action near-masterpiece Haywire (also a January release, and if this is to become a trend, I’m all on board). Blackhat is one of the few films to tackle the subject of hackers and find anything to say about them filmically and not simplynarratively.
It is not a work that has a few characters inform us of the soulless quality of a tech-heavy life. Rather, it knows this soulless quality in its bones, not commenting on it but existing in it, and then coming back around again to comment much more fully and expressively than it could have through any means other than Mann’s. It is, in a form, the culmination of what Mann has spent ten years (and admittedly only three films, including this one, doing): pushing the modern action thriller to the heights of non-representational beauty, turning gunshots into explosions of color, and color explosions into shots of silently haunting alien feeling. He’s a painter and digital cinematography is his canvas, and as long as he uses it to produce collages of visual art and not “realist” narratives, he’s on fine form.