Michael Mann’s upcoming movie “Blackhat” has been largely overshadowed by intense media attention focused on the Christmas release of the assassination comedy “The Interview,” linked to the disastrous computer hack perpetrated on Sony Pictures.
But awareness of Mann’s film, bowing Jan.16, is beginning to mount amid an uncanny life-imitates-art timing that recalls the release of the 1979 nuclear drama “The China Syndrome” 12 days before the Three Mile Island meltdown in Pennsylvania.
The globe-trotting cyber thriller (produced and financed by Legendary and released by Universal Pictures) stars Chris Hemsworth as a gifted hacker who gets furloughed from his Los Angeles prison sentence to help authorities hunt for an elusive cyber criminal responsible for crippling attacks on a Chinese nuclear reactor and the Chicago Board of Trade.
Mann suggested the premise it is an eminently plausible one, given the number of high-profile former hackers who now work as government or private-sector consultants like Kevin Poulsen, sentenced to five years in federal prison in the mid-90s, and now an acclaimed journalist for Wired magazine; and Chris McKinley, the prodigal mathematician who hacked the dating website OkCupid in order to make his profile more visible in searches. Both men served as advisers on the film.
As Mann and co-screenwriter Morgan Davis Foehl researched the subject further, the director became fascinated by “the degree of how porous and vulnerable everything is” — the idea that a hacker could, with the right lines of code, burrow deep into the realms of corporate patents, defense-industry secrets and other intellectual property.
“We live in what we think is a compartmentalized world in which there is something called privacy,” Mann told Variety by phone, having just finished several marathon days of sound mixing and color timing. “A better analogy is that we’re living in a house where all the doors and windows are open and we’re in a very dangerous neighborhood, but we don’t know it.”
When he was first starting to work on “Blackhat” in 2011, Mann encountered a number of experts who were frustrated by their inability to convince multinational corporations and defense contractors to increase their digital security protocols. “Now it’s out in the open and it’s very apparent,” he said. “There’s no such thing as an electronic iron curtain. There’s no security consultant who’s going to show up and say, ‘Your home is completely secure. You have nothing to worry about.’ That’s not going to happen.”
Unsurprisingly, “Blackhat” is a vastly smarter, more visceral film than the opportunistic wave of Internet paranoia thrillers Hollywood churned out in the mid-‘90s (“Hackers,” “The Net”) — one ripped from today’s headlines rather than yesterday’s technophobia.
Mann noted that the real-life hackers described the thrill of writing and executing computer code as “a kind of opiated positive feedback loop,” a zoning-out during which hours would seem to tick by in a matter of minutes. “Also, there’s the ability to manipulate something as abstract as code while causing a kinetic effect in the real, physical world,” he added. “I understand the appeal to a hacker of that.”
A famous stickler for realism down to the smallest details, Mann sent Hemsworth to code-writing school, the way he had once sent James Caan — star of his 1981 debut feature, “Thief” — to safecracking school. “Audiences are perceptually brilliant, to a much larger extent than they’re aware,” suggested Mann of his approach. “They intuitively perceive truth-telling style when they see it. They’ll go along with someone faking it, but when they see an actor who really knows what he’s doing, it just registers differently. When an actor believes that he can do a thing and he’s doing it well, we believe him, and hopefully, if you’ve got everything else right, that opens up a deeper kind of emotional connection.”
The director, who has devoted many films to the workings of criminals and law enforcement (“Manhunter,” “Heat,” Miami Vice,” “Public Enemies”), said that the challenge of investigating cybercrimes lies in first discerning the motive, which can range from mere pranks to corporate espionage to politically-motivated sabotage, as with the August 2012 cyberattack on Saudi Arabian national oil company, Aramco, by a group calling itself the Cutting Sword of Justice.
“If a jewelry store is robbed, you can assume the motivation is cash money, and the robbers will go to a fence,” he suggested. “If you’re a detective, you call up all your informants who are fences. What’s interesting to me about the antagonist in ‘Blackhat’ is that these are major intrusions that are causing major damage, and not only does nobody know who did or where he is, they also don’t know why he did it, because none of it adds up.”
While it may have taken a direct hit on Sony for Hollywood to become fully aware of the dangers of hacking, Mann has been up to his eyeballs in the worlds of cyber intrusion and espionage for the past three years, ever since he first read about Stuxnet, the computer worm (widely believed to have been deployed, at least in part, by the U.S. government) credited with creating major disruptions in Iran’s production of enriched uranium.
“That’s how I got into this world, and then the curtains parted,” Mann said. “Stuxnet was talked about as the world’s first stealth drone. It hit you, and you didn’t know you’d been hit for about a year and a half. It caused the centrifuges in Iran’s nuclear program to fluctuate and had hijacked their monitoring. The monitoring indicated everything was fine, and meanwhile 18 months of uranium production was going down the drain.”
With Hollywood reeling from the Sony attack (and a flood of sensitive information that has yet to be sluiced), business is booming for leading cyber-security firms like Mandiant and Kaspersky. But while the experts struggle to build a better mousetrap, the hackers of the world are doubtless already at work on defeating it.
It’s hard to recall a more urgent movie of the moment.