Blackhat opens with a CG-animated representation of a block of data infiltrating a computer network. A tiny glowing grid sliding along a superconducting surface with what seems very much to be purposeful intent. But in and of itself it has no autonomy. It is being directed, controlled by someone else. The film closes with an action sequence taking place in Jakarta, during a Hindu religious festival called Nyepi, a New Year’s celebration symbolizing a restoration of balance between man and nature. Hundreds of the faithful march down the street in columns that strongly resemble the gridded-out bits of code from the opening sequence, while the characters move deliberately against that grain. These bookending images represent a crucial thematic shift from Michael Mann’s last two features. Both Miami Viceand Public Enemies were ultimately about individuals being swallowed up by systems. Personal relationships can’t thrive and personal desires are a liability when institutions (legitimate or otherwise) are arrayed against you. Their gravity is irresistible, and pulls everything toward the singularity at the center. Vice’s Sonny Crockett sacrifices his love of a drug cartel’s frontwoman for his duty as an undercover cop. John Dillinger is destroyed when both organized crime and law enforcement collectivize. The personal is always defeated when in conflict with the professional.
Mann no longer sees people as subservient to systems, rather he envisions his characters as data points that infiltrate those systems and repurpose them.
But in Blackhat that gravity is reversed. It’s not new for Mann that the professional is personal, but here individuals crucially once again have power over systems that have become too immense to control. In order to stop a hacker who has manipulated international financial markets and caused serious damage to state infrastructures, the American and Chinese governments must work with a single, specific person. When our hero, hacker Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) first sets foot on an airport tarmac after years in prison (where he spends his time reading Foucault’sDiscipline and Punish and Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation and doing pushups, claiming he does “his own time”), it’s a precisely measured moment of his deinstitutionalization, illustrated by one of Mann’s patented, gorgeous close-ups on his face, framed by the negative space of the open sky before him and the sleek lines of a private jet and a beautiful woman behind. It’s an expression of emotional freedom and intellectual mastery over his imprisonment. Mann no longer sees people as subservient to systems, rather he envisions his characters as data points that infiltrate those systems and repurpose them. Blackhat’s conflicts might begin as bits of code, but as Hemsworth says as he exacts revenge for the death of a friend, sliding through the Nyepi procession’s columns of identically-costumed revelers, “It’s not about ones and zeroes!” A bomb may be detonated remotely, or a nuclear coolant turbine made to stop or start, but at either end there is a person, someone to press a button or a body to be shredded by shrapnel. Eventually things must come down to meatspace, to humans in action.