Director Michael Mann has been making theatrical features for 35 years. It’s usually the same film, following an antisocial man as he pursues fulfillment or freedom, or another man that comes to represent both. The where is often a city, the when is typically the dead of night, and the how sees personal codes of conduct upset the wider rules of society, sometimes violently. And for whatever else one or both men might be, they are consummate professionals.
Frank (James Caan), the title figure of Mann’s 1981 theatrical debut, Thief, is the template from which Mann’s other screen-size protagonists are moulded. Spurred into returning to Thief after reading Isaac Butler’s recent reflection on Mann’s first masterpiece, I was struck by just how much of Frank, and Thief, are still kicking around in 2015’s Blackhat. Through bookending stories of men so consumed by work that their professional title precedes them, we see how Mann has managed, more successfully than many of his characters and contemporaries, to update his particular skills and obsessions for more than a quarter century.
The introductory heist of Thief, an intimate showcase of Frank’s discipline as a function of Mann’s meticulous research, opens on the rain-slick streets of Chicago, gradually bringing us in on Frank’s latest score. The walls, electronics, and security measures designed to protect a collection of diamonds are no match for Frank’s exhaustive preparation. Propelled by the pulsing synth score of Tangerine Dream, Frank strains as he uses a power drill to bore deep into the final hurdle, a safe door. The music climbs to a peak as Frank hits pay dirt. He leans down to admire his handiwork, and Mann zooms into the breached fortress to reveal its fatal weakness: a simple tumble lock. With three quick strikes of a hammer, Frank finishes turning a top-of-the-line piece of securities technology into scrap metal.
Fast-forward three and half decades, and little has changed besides scope. Opening on the whole of the planet as it’s blanketed with warm blue light, Mann closes in, first to a coastline, then a power plant somewhere in China. He briefly surveys the human element at work, before diving even deeper. The camera passes into an LCD monitor and zeroes in on the microscopic innards of an industrial computer mainframe. Flowing data, presented in the same blue glow, streams along silicon highways. Suddenly, a rogue packet shoots off to a new destination, triggering a reaction. We pull back to see the cooling fans of the computer stopped dead, then back further to watch the catastrophic breakdown of even larger fans meant to cool the plant’s fuel rods. The facility explodes, and the only cause we can point to is seen briefly during a cutaway, midway through the scene: a barely-visible man in an unknown location taps commands on his keyboard. The effort only requires the use of one of his hands.
Though similar in construction, the two openers separate Thief and Blackhat into subcategories of Mann film. As Butler puts it:
Either the protagonist is self-secure, and the story of the film is his attempt to assert his unstoppable force on the unmovable object of the world. Or his self is in flux, he does not know who he is, and he is torn between being and Iceman and, well, a Schlimazel. This internal conflict is then pressurized by the external events of the film until it is resolved, generally in a clarifying act of violence. The Last of the Mohicans, Ali, Public Enemies, and Blackhat all belong to the first group, Heat, Collateral, Miami Vice, and Thief belong to the second.
For a man of Frank’s time and talent, the scores are big, but he’s dedicated himself to staying smalltime. Frank’s night work is always something he can exert direct and total control over. It’s after Frank incorporates himself with a mob outfit that the freedom of a self-owned business, even a criminal one, really shines through. Instead of picking his own jobs and managing his own exposure, Frank has to trust partners, or bosses passing themselves off as partners, to call the shots. And with big, illegal business comes regulation, in the form of payoffs to corrupt cops, and pension fund deposits masquerading as investments in strip malls. The trajectory of Thief is its own lesson in nascent Reaganomics, trumpeting the virtue of professional self-governance over organizational collaboration.
By 2015, thieves, bent cops, and buyable judges are less of a concern, in light of the 21st century boogeyman that is global terror. Sadak (Yorick van Wageningen), the mastermind behind the power plant detonation, comes to have his motivation revealed as the same that’s existed since capitalism immemorial: money, just in an economy where wealth is measured not in diamonds or cash, but with numbers on a “digital scoreboard.” What’s different is the level of response such a disruption demands, one that would make Heat’s Neil McCauley and Collateral’s Vincent blanch: a Sino-American joint task force of marshals, feds, and cybercrimes officers.
In a globally connected security state and bureaucracy, Mann’s individualist cowboys have never been more at odds with the world, or more rare. His latest creation, Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), is a brilliant, muscle-bound “blackhat” doing time for more benign acts of digital burglary and thieving. The task force makes him an offer: stop Sadak, and Hathaway's sentence will be commuted. Blackhat’s digital cinematography, and globally plotted and cast story are of their time, just as a lead like Hemsworth, as a descendent of Caan, says something about changing viewer markets and tastes. Frank could never do what’s asked of Hathaway, though. We identify with Frank because his desires and his limits are human; smalltime. For Hathaway to serve his function, both as an action movie hero in a cyberthriller, and an impactful individual within a global system, he has to be almost superhuman.
The skills that draw these men into the service of powers greater than themselves are just a means to an end for Mann. When Frank is on the job, or Hathaway is at a terminal, each is in total control of their surroundings. Removed from these arenas, their sense of purpose becomes more conceptual, more easily interfered with by outside forces. It’s easy for Frank to rationalize waving a gun at civilians, or losing his temper in public. The life he’s struggling towards (literally visualized as a pocket poster collage) will be one of peace, and removed from criminality. Hathaway’s drive is to achieve the most basic freedom ever portrayed in a Mann film. It’s not Frank’s car dealership and place in the ‘burbs Hathaway desires, just the liberty to look out across a still lakefront or endless tarmac as an autonomous being.
As each man goes about trying to achieve their goal under the watchful eyes of distrusting authorities, visual symmetries between Thief and Blackhat stack up. Sometimes it’s relatively minor details, like the hazmat suits both Frank and Hathaway don as part of a particularly dangerous process, or how the fluctuating temperature gauges in Blackhat recall the voltage meters Frank uses to identify security wires. More notable are the movements, the labor that’s often forgotten about when pulling off seemingly delicate operations. Mann makes you watch the exhausting entirety of what it takes for Frank to break through the roof of an office building (which reportedly injured Caan). Hathaway more often engages in the spectacle of exhilarating fistfights and shootouts, but it’s when taking an axe to an irradiated column in the power plant that Mann reiterates, more than other directors would, the arc and weight of the tool as it connects with its target.
Parallels continue to appear in scenes of quiet reflection, putting Mann’s protagonists in the uncomfortable position of having to explain themselves. Sitting across from their love interest in unremarkable eateries, each man expounds upon the mental fortitude required for him to endure prison for years. Their speeches are, in fact, so similar that Hathaway’s partner, Lien (Tang Wei), calls out his philosophy for sounding pre-canned (maybe he heard it in a movie once). “Think about where you are, not where you’ve been,” she tells him. Mann often treats the past as having little immediate relevance to a character’s present. We learn of Frank’s childhood as a ward of the state almost in passing, and Hathaway’s voice is drowned out before we can hear about his relationship with his father.
Mann cares little for personal history, instead letting the actions of his characters be what defines them. Both Frank and Hathaway use their talents until they arrive at the precipice of clean entry back into normal society, before violence robs them of the oppurtunity. It’s here that the two, to my mind, trade templates. Frank resigns himself to the detached life of the Iceman, pushing away his wife, Jessie (Tuesday Weld), while sending his nearly-realized straight life up in flames. In Thief’s most indelible image, Frank ignites one of the vehicles on the lot of his dealership, the overhanging light bulbs reflecting off the black finish of his own car below. He’s a man adrift in space, trapped between darkness and points of light with nothing left to hold onto, not even his collage card. When he kills the mobsters that betrayed him, and wanders off into the night, he seems lost, maybe even disappointed. Dying to defend personal dignity and principles at least had a romantic finality to it. If Mann wanted him to return to Jessie, I think we would see it; at best, Frank can start over again, wiser to the ways of the world, but older, and more tired than he was the last time he hit the reset button.
“What’s meaning without a bankroll?,” Hathaway elucidates 34 years later, playing at still being the Iceman while trying to trap his quarry. Hathaway, his support team all dead, himself facing a return to prison if captured, instead does the schlimazel thing, endangering his freedom and life to stop a villain. Searching for one another while caught up in a parade of thousands of torchbearers, Hathaway and Sadak finally make their digital conflict analog. As hackers, ghostmen, they navigate invisible streams of data and code with complete anonymity. But seen as part of the material plane, surrounded by light and people, the two are scarcely more visible in this psychical stream than when they operated from inside an online one.
“No one has ever gotten this close before.” It’s these words —said to Hathaway with hints of admiration, even a little despondence, by a soon-to-be-dead henchman— that reassert Mann’s career-spanning obsession with connection. The climax of Blackhat unmistakably evokes Thief’s final shootout, but the nature of its violence is starkly different. When Frank blows away his oppressors, it’s in emphatic slow motion, each bullet its own operatic act. When Hathaway gets close as can be, stabbing Sadak to death, the effort is quick and clinical. What, ultimately, has he gained? Hathaway gets the girl and the money, but he hasn’t Frank's luxury of a clean getaway; when everything is connected, no one can truly quit the world anymore. The digital cameras that have allowed Mann to see his heroes more clearly over the years have only made those characters look more insignificant, like redundant code hiding in an ever-expanding program. The lakes and streams are now one big blue ocean, but people are no bigger than they were 35 years ago.