Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tang Wei, Wang Leehom, Viola Davis, Yorick van Wageningen, Holt McCallany, Ritchie Coster
Director: Michael Mann
Runtime: 135 min.
Verdict: Deeply sensual. I had a dream the night I watched it. Every aspiring porn filmmaker should watch this film.
Genre: Thriller, Romance
In many ways, The Jackal’s exploitation of the British birth-system/passport-system was a strictly local phenomenon. This was a little before globalization, and this was a little before systems developed over several years and filtered through several traditions and world-views and ideologies gave way to the homogeneity of a product formula being replicated with little to no attention to the historicity of it all. I’m 32, and when I was a kid, there was news of India not having cryogenic capabilities. What that was all about, I didn’t know, and I still don’t know. The point is that depending upon the inventory/raw-material, which itself depends upon the geographical position, a product used to have its individuality. The homogeneity that coding and software and SEZs have brought in alters that heterogeneous landscape a little bit. My friend Srikanth Srinivasan produces software on how vehicles behave, and so now, in this strangely monopoly-encouraging world of operating systems, the security system of a Volkswagen might not behave entirely different from that of a BMW. It might, please note, but only when the companies choose to configure it thus. Because it is not driven by raw material in the industrial sense of the word, because it can operate (or reduce) upon or between, or interoperate between a vast variety of symbols and thus produce pretty mutable systems, the software, more than any modernist product, lends itself to extensibility, and is pretty malleable because of those extensible points. So much so that it is one of the ushers of our culture’s journey from modernism to postmodernism, of aesthetics/design trumping functionality. It behaves different, or at least gives the impression that it can, but the core has only a finite number of algorithms (in all probability coded by a developer as a set of symbol-based instructions) to choose from. Those algorithms, which are accessible universally, and thus can be exploited not merely locally, but from any which where. So while we now have an emission problem with a particular manufacturer, we can now have a bug that attacks any system (spanning not merely across vehicle manufactures) that exposes a given extensibility point.
Mr. Mann opens Blackhat to this world of digital non-boundaries so bright they seem to want to obliterate, or let us say overwrite, the geographical boundaries. And before you raise both your hands to dismiss this rather commonplace view of our world, which I agree it is, with a hint of criticism in its tone, I would want to add that Mr. Mann, who just like the other Mann specializes in mapping urban terrains (Mr. Anthony Mann sure was a master with western terrains, but he did have his own worldview with urban settings too), seems to understand the product nature of modern spaces like Hong Kong, where a smart city formula successful in one SEZ in one part of the world is now eagerly, and dare I say impatiently, replicated in other aspiring parts. Identity is historicity, and since the latter is ignored, the former is compromised. It is interesting then, how Mr. Mann chooses to narrate his spaces, how his lights and shadows and colors do not necessarily seem to differentiate between a skyline in the United States from a skyline in China, and how his characters seem to all wear sunglasses hoping for some sort of combination between anonymity homogeneity and good old-fashioned coolness. You could argue that this is in some ways a critique of the capitalist way, of the predominance of the symbolic/representative form over the real thing (whatever that means), and for that we need to see how Mr. Mann sets up his narrative.
There is a cyber-attack on a nuclear reactor, and since it is a reactor (apparently this part was towards the end in the script, and Mr. Mann brought it upfront) it gives terrorism vibes, which by definition is symbolic of all attacks. I mean, we have Anonymous roping in all these leftist volunteers and committing to easy DDoS attacks, and all of this nothing if not symbolic. It is amusing how Mr. Mann chooses to represent an attack – a little army of lights (electrons?) running along towards a wall to open up a small gate (light), from where courtesy a hard push on the Enter button of a distant computer keyboard causes to unleash a deluge of angry electrons from the small gate and back towards from where the little army came to knock something out. You could argue that his intention is to show how real and material a cyber-attack actually is, instead of pointing towards ether. Or, you could argue that he chooses to represent how a cyber-attack resembles or could resemble the Trojan horse. Just in case you need extra ammunition for your respective arguments, here’s a little bit of traffic flowing both ways. Exhibit A is the film’s poster. Exhibit B is an image from the cyber-attack. Note the layer of Balinese dancers, of the men and the walls, and what I would want a human firewall if you will.
You could also wonder if Mr. Christopher Nolan would ever have such a scene in any of his films. As far as identities go, the cities themselves seem to be interchangeable. There seems to be a preference for bluish light strips on either side of the Pacific. Lots of association points sprinkled throughout (and thereby historicity in the way we are viewing the film), and both the moments below have Chen Lien (Ms. Tang Wei) speaking to either of the guardian men – Hathaway (Mr. Hemsworth), her lover, and Captain Chen (Mr. Wang), her brother – contributing very well to what is a very subtle gender dynamic arc that bears substantial fruit towards the end.
In a curious little moment, after Captain Chen asks his sister to accompany him in his investigation of the cyber-attack, involving a trip to the United States, we have a soulful pan across a skyline (continuing with the same music) to arrive at the floor of a stock exchange in Chicago. I’m still unsure whether that is a parting filler shot, or an establishing filler shot, and that is because while the music-binding points towards the former, the empty floor with a lot of papers lying around and flying around and televisions and numbers and radio-voices and no people seems to evoke the same blend of horror/melancholy as a parting shot would. That edit between two events kind of reflexively morphs them together. Mr. Mann doesn’t mark his cities/spaces with captions/names either, as is the traditional Hollywood way to firmly establish our bearings in a globe-trotting narrative, and as we later see it is not that he doesn’t want to.
There is also in the overhead shots of the city skyline and all its lights, and this is probably just me reading it that way (pardon me) although I can claim that even Srikanth did that too, a resemblance to a printed circuit board. I often tend to get that even in other films, like the The Dark Knight Rises, and for some weird reason I think it is because of the brown-brick of the Georgian buildings. But just assuming that it is intended, is the resemblance a metaphor/symbol in a narrative preoccupied with the digital and how the material components realize the function, or is it a representation of the replicable urbanization around us? There is a reference to 9/11 here, but then, in our modern urban spaces, all it takes to evoke that event is a tall building in any city, and not necessarily the actual place in Manhattan. The terrorist attack and the narrative around it become doubly symbolic then, and with all the codes and 1s and 0s, you begin to smell just a wee bit of primitivism rearing its head.
Most importantly, the investigation, of going through code and empathizing with it is not exactly the most feasible problem for a filmmaker, and Mr. Mann, who gave us probably the most convincing not-spelling-it-out-for-the-audience detective realization in Manhunter, mostly solves it by skipping around it. He does commit to technical jargon (some of it alright, some of it wrong, and some of it a little WTF), but to attach psychology to a piece of code (the main objective of the screenplay) is largely unfulfilled. I’m sorry, adjectives like lean and graceful, and overwritten as opposed to frenetic, is just not it. But then again, a scene of a homicide, which is real, or at least assumed to be real with all its real bodies and real blood and real events, probably lends itself better to filmmaking than say an essentially representative component – a code, a letter, handwriting, or the structure of a novel. I mean, I have no idea how that problem can be solved, and I do know I feel like Hathaway whenever I am performing code reviews in my project.
But then I say primitivism, and Hathaway almost completely rubbishes the notion of it by offering both the brains and the brawns. Standard Hollywood narrative, or for that matter standard whatever narrative (even Endhiran) seems to want to clearly demarcate the areas the brains and the brawns operate in. A brainy guy, like Simon (Mr. Paul Dano) in Knight and Day, can solve complex energy issues but it needs a skillset of the caliber of Roy (Mr. Cruise) to fight the bad guys. The two are almost irreconcilable (Harry and his crew in Armageddon), more so in the world of cyber-attacks, and just to be drill the point completely through, you got to look around yourself folks wanting to get into gymnasiums and do 10K runs. Mr. Mann, in his casting of Mr. Hemsworth as the guy equally good with keyboard and triggers, kind of demolishes those boundaries. He walks through an airstrip, feeling the world around, and when he refers to his disciplined mind-body-mind approach to life in prison to Chen she refers to a more intuitive approach to rapid-decision making to life outside in general and their cyber-attack in particular. I know, it is the scriptwriter speaking, but if we look at the other protagonists in Mr. Mann films (ironic?), from William Graham who doesn’t want to have any part of the world of psychotic serial killers to the not-so-much-a-Mohican Hawkeye to no-family-no-attachment Neil McCauley to whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand to this-is-just-part-time Max the cab driver, we get a feel of individuals wanting to break out of the identity of their group (maybe that is what Mr. Mann is talking about when he describes Thief as a left-extensionalist critique of corporate capitalism, and I don’t know much about it). That desire, though, gets pretty useful here, and that is probably because one feels the overall intention is to traverse from the world of representations to reality, from IP addresses to coordinates, and that desire, not for knowledge but for a way of living, from websites to servers-sites, from buildings to a Balinese dance parade with flames all around, is pretty primitivist in my book. Especially when the narrative begins with something as symbolic as a terrorist attack and ends with something as personal as Bonnie and Clyde finally “converting” the numbers we see on screen to money and walking away. Mr. Mann makes it all so sensual, of two people walking away, of two people sitting in a cab (with the camera behind them), and when we close our eyes to sleep we are not thinking of such important questions as whether a picture of a person in a mobile can serve as a useful representative but we’re thinking and dreaming about a stream of light and a piece of music. That is the pure bit of cinema Mr. Mann has at his disposal, of somehow making those figures chasing each other against a crowd celebrating some light-and-dance festival, seem more about the form than about the content. It is all terribly material and sensual, of repeated stabbings, and again of a man and a woman walking away in an airport towards seeming oblivion, and although you could capture a representation of them on screen you would never get close to the essence of it.
Just one word about the technology here. The Black Widow software examines fragments and constructs originals. I don’t know, but what does it mean? How do you, or can you do that? Traditional recovery software can get the data already there, but if it is not there, how/why do you reconstruct it? You must be assuming something which is just plain wrong. If you ask me, that part really had be worried.