“This is about if I can get close enough, fast enough.” – Nick Hathaway, Blackhat
So says Blackhat’s main character to his love interest in Michael Mann’s latest. The phrase is both a literal description of the final action sequence of the film and a nice summation of Mann’s filmography, both narratively and thematically.
Michael Mann’s movies are marked by two things – thrilling chases and thick melodrama. It doesn’t matter if his story is set in colonial America or contemporary China, his films feature a good guy chasing a literal or metaphorical bad guy and hopefully falling in love with something other than himself in the process. When his male protagonists don’t fall in love with something else, the movie ends tragically. When they do, the ending feels mostly happy even if the characters have lost a lot in the process.
Since 2001, Mann has also shot his films exclusively using digital video instead of film. Steve Vredenburgh is correct in his assessment of the format in his original review of Blackhat that the format excels at producing crisp, detailed, vibrant nighttime images. I would add that the format also makes the action sequences feel harrowingly real. The shootout in the shipping container yard in Blackhat, like the gun fight in the woods in Public Enemies and the shootout at the end of Miami Vice, is terrifying, because video makes it feel like a documentary more than a staged production.
Steve is also correct that Mann’s video makes the melodramatic scenes in Blackhat feel fake, but this isn’t only the fault of Mann’s video. The melodrama works fine in Ali and Collateral. Chris Hemsworth is a fine actor, but his style is wrong for this. Mann’s films really need someone like Jaime Foxx, Colin Farrell, Will Smith, Johnny Depp, or Tom Cruise—big actors with big screen-personalities—to carry Mann’s melodrama convincingly. Hemsworth is too understated, so when he has to express big emotions, it feels like a soap opera. He’s great in the action scenes, because he acts like a real, highly skilled person would act, but real people don’t talk like Mann’s characters talk in emotional moments. It takes a charlatan to embody that much pathos. Hemsworth is too genuine.
Since we’re always looking for meaning in films here at Reel Spirituality, it’s worth noting that Blackhat demonstrates how the particular quality of the image itself, the format on which the story is captured and communicated, conveys meaning beyond what the story is saying. Mann’s video image says that what it is capturing is as vivid as real life, and as long as he’s showing us something we’ve never experienced, like a gun fight in a shipping yard, we believe what we see. When he switches to declarations of love between two people or heated workplace arguments, it feels fake, because we’ve been in those situations before, and the dialog and action of those scenes is too stilted to be believable. Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans and Heat are more melodramatic than Blackhat, and we have no trouble believing those films, because they were shot on film, and film is the medium of wholly imagined worlds where melodrama is acceptable.
So why does Mann rely on melodrama at all? If he is highly skilled at capturing evocative, real-feeling images, why does he resort to such broad, false-feeling sentimentality?
As with his heroes’ pursuits of their villains, Mann is trying to “get close enough, fast enough” to the emotional, intuitive, heart-side of life. Mann’s heroes are in a hurry, because death might be lurking around the next shipping container. They have to get “close enough, fast enough” to the people they love before they run out of time. Mann’s villains are the kinds of people who are ready to walk away from everything at a moment’s notice, because they don’t love anything—not power, not money, not prestige—more than they love themselves. Mann’s heroes are always having to learn to give up their abilities to take care of themselves in favor of taking care of someone else. This is all very “manly” in a stereotypical sense, but as a man who is a little too in favor of his own independence, I appreciate Mann’s frequent encouragement to “get close enough, fast enough” to the people who love me and whom I love instead of pursuing my goals, enemies, and self to their eventual ends.
Two final notes about Blackhat:
First, as Steve mentioned, the film begins by showing data racing through and wreaking havoc on a computer system. These sequences are “shot” like Mann shoots a car or foot chase, suggesting even something as immaterial as a point of data has personality, a fact that is reiterated later when a room full of FBI agents discuss the personalities of a couple of pieces of code. The digital world may feel impersonal, but we created it, and it bears our image. (In that particular scene, there’s also a neat little commentary on filmmaking, I think, in which Mann juxtaposes his elegant, efficient style with filmmakers who have poorly copied him.) As Steve said, at the end, our hero and villains become those points of data wreaking havoc on an otherwise well-choreographed system.
Second, as Steve also noted, Mann is obsessive about the details in this films. When you watch Blackhat, look at everything. Notice for instance that early in the film when Carol Barrett is in her superior’s office, Mann includes in the frame a desk ornament commemorating 9/11 that sits on her superior’s desk. Later in the film, Barrett and her superior conflict over a course of action because of the different ways 9/11 affected each of them. He needs to keep a reminder of the event on his desk. She was touched by it personally. Mann’s films are full of these kinds of little details. Watch his image more than his story, and you’ll have a much richer experience.
You might also find these reviews of Blackhat helpful: