Conceivably Leftist Cinema: Blackhat

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Mark Jessup: “How do you feel about this?”
Carol Barrett: “Not good. It’s worse for the guy in there. I’m surprised you went along.”
Mark: “Washington didn’t see Chai Wan.”

With its opening shot Mann sets Blackhat—and our lives—firmly within the dialectics of rarefication and reification, connection and disconnection, proximity and distance: a disembodied connectivity and embodied disconnection. We move from the coming together of isolated bureaucratic monads to the emergence of a community of disparate people who test the limits of the abstraction-inducing dehumanisation such bureaucracy inspires. The state’s management of these dialectics to support—through its organisation and maintenance of the world—a mode of being we might call, following the film, the “ghostman”, such that proximity dialectically entails distance, connection breeds disconnection, reified means leads to rarefied ends.

We follow Nicholas Hathaway (Hemsworth), who refers to himself importantly at one point as “ghostman”, microcosm of the wider problem, quickly established as the chief one among others trying to again participate in globo-communal life, beyond the terms of state domination of individual and social life, and its all too reified means of engendering abstraction and rarefication in organised life through its various branches of oversight of the collective (e.g. bureaucracy, economy, prison- and military- industrial complex).

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The condition of the ghostman is created chiefly because of the biopolitical machinations of technologised, neoliberal state power. It is telling that two books in Hathaway’s prison cell are Derrida’s ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am’ and ‘Discipline and Punish’, among significant others. In a dialectical process, it is precisely because of the reified means of Hathaway’s being eviscerated from collectivity, extorted, made simply-but-also-less-than a body for the state to dominate that he cannot do anything but live a life of enforced, abstract, spectral detachment. It is in this sense that the haunting and haunted shot and look of Hathaway on the airfield, when juxtaposed with his conversation with Chen Lien (Tang Wei) which serves to draw him toward, insists on his coming to a proximate and corporeal form of being, work as the visual movement of a dialectical reversal—a synthetic coming back to the material in a site after passing through the state order’s negativity.

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Mann, in Hathaway, sees that our rarefied existence stems from a prior reification, sets of actions and processes that organise and dominate. Blackhat appears to posit the neoliberal state as, if not chief architect, then certainly the caretaker of such a system: prison rarefies through domination, stocks rarefy through human speculation, and collective life rarefied through economic and political plans. It is fitting that Hathaway goes from prison to Hong Kong, a prison kindly named a “city”, and the home of avant-garde economic trading—a movement from Hathaway as microcosm of a problem to the problem in its social macrocosm. Hathaway abstracted through becoming ghostman, homo sacer, a subject at risk of disconnection from the proximity of bodies and their need for sociality and justice; Hong Kong abstracted through economic processes and paradigms that set each against all.

“What do you want me to do? Grieve? Because I knew him? He’s not here anymore.” – Sadak

It is precisely these organised, very reified processes and systems that create a rarefied life and rarefied subjects. The terminal point of such a subjectivity and subjectivised disconnection comes out in those who take the rules of the market to heart and play on the abstracted, close-but-distant flows of our world. Sadak, the antagonist, is a “gamer”, a fully initiated ghostman, a willing actor in the rarefied world; he simply plays through the channels and by the rules of the organised world: “I hire people to do sub-symbolic stuff.” Amass, speculate, practice, destroy, and to do it again. No time for grief, no one is here anymore, let alone oneself. “Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I don’t even know who I am”, there is no subject, no society—only ghosts, proximate but disconnected.

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‘You can call me “chica” any time you want.’ – Barrett

Barrett: “You’re gonna take him into custody?”
Jessup: “I follow orders.”
Barrett: “Which orders? Stop the bad guys, or arrest Hathaway?”

In all and against all of this, between all of the reification and the corporeally organised abstraction, Blackhat imagines and understands the fragility of the desire for and efforts to make and maintain connection, collectivity, and justice (e.g. Jessup and Barrett’s emergent friendship with the rest problematising the muted abstraction their job and orders entail, as they appreciate that justice can’t be served by their orders and bureaucracy). Indeed the opening epigraph exemplifies the state agents experiencing the rarefied work of the state: their role as agents of justice compromised by bureaucracy that ignores the real state of things. The dissonance of the state’s orders in Barrett (Viola Davis) and Jessup’s (Holt McCallany) minds is palpable throughout their time in the film, and is an exemplification of the breakdown that operates between the proximity and connection of their new form of sociality (e.g. Hathaway’s willingness to help and risk further jail recontextualising for Bennett a previous racial micro-aggression, or the forms of trust that emerge beyond notions of borders or race) and the rarefied distance and disconnection effected by state orders.

How does one respond to orders that undercut and impede the justice one is meant to enforce? How does one react when the state does not, cannot, will not see the results of the world it has made normative? The only option the film feels is viable is to run from the failure of the state, to go beyond its antagonisms. Justice only comes when Hathaway and Chen Lien escape the eye of the state, which is caught up in justice oblivious realpolitik, and become unseen; when they cling to their connection and what remains of their fragile collectivity, against all the abstraction-inducing systems of the global order.

This photo provided by Universal Pictures shows, Tang Wei, left, as Chen Lien, and Chris Hemsworth, as Nicholas Hathaway in Legendary’s film, "Blackhat," from director/producer Michael Mann. (AP Photo/Legendary Pictures - Universal Pictures, Frank Connor)

In all this, Blackhat isn’t nostalgic—but it is melancholic, it knows that it is losing. As in so much of 2015 cinema (e.g. Magic Mike XXLCarol), it knows that outside of dominant, organised structures and systems, life and justice is eroding and being made itinerant. The melancholy of Blackhat emerges from it knowing that our current forms of organisation offer us nothing, that justice is a rarity; that collective life is desired on new terms, but is difficult to sustain in our current condition. The state’s chief mode is abstraction-inducing domination over individuals (prison) and collectives (cities). Blackhat understands the speed at which the world now works. It knows information moves and events occur faster than can be humanly processed, but refuses in this to yearn for the past.  It sees its characters cling to each other and do what they can; do what is most meaningfully possible in a world that eviscerates meaning with imprisonment, distance, city planning, and the economisation of all bodies; do what they can in spite of the realpolitik that disconnects justice from institutionally coded “realities”.

“No one’s ever gotten this close before.” – Kassar

“Not about zeroes or ones or code.” – Hathaway

As I say, the neoliberal state and its failure—failure to organise, and efficiency in rarefying and destroying, collective lives in ways that foster social health and well-being—is a topic deeply at the centre of the movie. “Washington didn’t see Chai Wan”—like Sadak, Washington and other governments only see “zeroes or ones or code”, the rest is “sub-symbolic stuff”. Bodies, lives, communities, and their experience of justice are at the mercy of what the state does or does not want to see—as well as what it does organise. What are the actions and plans of Sadak compared to the chain of decisions and orders that sanctioned Hiroshima, or a drone attack in Qatar? They live in the same abstraction, the work of ghostmen; able to do so much spooky action at a distance, with no concern for the very real destruction.

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It is against this spooky action, against the distant, disconnected ghostmen who lean into the rarefication of life neoliberalism has organised that Blackhat raises and reifies the point and impact of a screwdriver and a knife. Bodies and communities are rarefied by reified neoliberal policies and bureaucracies, but these same bodies and communities, as they organise anew, can resist this rarefication-inducing domination and make concrete their own desires. ghostmen are still people, and people do not have to be ghosts—yet the possibility of refusing this becoming is precarious and fragile, the work of a system requires more than individual resistance.

In Blackhat Mann has given us a kind of cartography, a cartography of the mental and spatial contradictions of our hyper-connected, neoliberal world. Who are we as subjects and collectives? Is our connectivity deployed to connect or disconnect, to increase proximity or distance? How does the state act within this to organise the domination of or foster the flourishing of bodies and communities?

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It is for all this that Mann’s latest work is among a small number of the truly important, honest, politically charged, left-aligned pieces of cinema in recent years. It is retreading and gesturing beyond the nihilism of Mann’s Thief, though it has not escaped it—it would be too much to do so. It can only demonstrate, as perhaps a recontextualisation of Thief’s Frank at the conclusion of the same movie, that Hathaway and Chen’s lives, as well as our own, per the penultimate shot of the film (i.e. the couple appearing on a monitor that security is not looking at), are clinging to connection and a fragile collectivity—given over to our global itinerancy, and the reversed hope that “Washington didn’t see”.

Matthew McCracken
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Matthew McCracken

Lives and works in China where he teaches English, watches movies, and fails to finish the books he starts to read. ☭
Matthew McCracken
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