USA (133 mi) 2015 ‘Scope d: Michael Mann Official site
USA (133 mi) 2015 ‘Scope d: Michael Mann Official site
It’s been six years since Michael Mann’s last film PUBLIC ENEMIES (2009), an overly solemn and morose affair that loses any sense of the sleek elegance and grandeur that Mann’s films are known for, lost in a kind of dour and depressing looking digital era film blues, where the transition from 35mm celluloid to digital feels overly constricted to the point of suffocating. Think what you will about Mann’s films, they have always had an overwhelmingly modern look about them where the sheer beauty of a city landscape has a breathtaking allure. Mann began exploring the easy maneuverability and lightweight effects of a digital camera while shooting the boxing sequences in ALI (2001), where there’s been a steady decline since then in the cleanness of that look which has always been Mann’s trademark. After a brief hiatus for whatever reasons (probably lack of funding, like everbody else in the business), one thing’s for certain, and that is Mann has rediscovered his ability to use digital cameras to create a lush canvas on the screen. Specifically he turns to “old-school” British cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, perhaps not a household word, but his notable work includes the early Jane Campion films AN ANGEL AT MY TABLE (1990), THE PIANO (1993), and THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY (1996), all of which look fabulous, and this film is no different. What immediately grabs the audience’s interest is the relevance of the material, high tech security espionage, where you’d think former NSA contractor Edward Snowden from Citizenfour (2014) was one of the political consultants. Mann actually met with Mike Rogers, the Chairman of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence as well as former black hat hacker Kevin Poulsen, once sentenced to five years in a federal penitentiary, now senior editor for Wired News, in an attempt to make the film as authentic as possible, where their input in researching, writing, and shooting the film is invaluable. But it was the events surrounding a malware system known as Stuxnet on Christmas Day, December 25, 2012 that captured Mann’s attention, where a computer worm targeted an Iranian power plant (the Natanz nuclear facility) and reportedly ruined nearly one-fifth of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges, perhaps the most significant advancement of a publicly known intentional act of cyberwarfare. Stuxnet was initially discovered in June 2010 and was designed to attack industrial networks, where it is typically introduced to the target environment by an infected USB flash drive.
Initially entitled Cyber, hacker films are a strange breed, as instead of humans, the featured objects of the camera’s interest are actually computers, where people are continually seen sitting in front of them typing in strange globs of technical data, where it’s hard to find anything particularly dramatic about that, and oftentimes it can look downright silly. Up until now, the prototype has probably been SNEAKERS (1992), a relatively playful crime thriller, and prior to that WARGAMES (1983), which was actually watched at Camp David on opening weekend by President Ronald Reagan and discussed with members of Congress, WarGames: A Look Back at the Film That Turned ... - Wired, filmed at a time when there were few security measures in place to stop hackers. Mann is more interested in creating a modernist landscape with a potentially futuristic scenario exploring the darker ramifications of cyber terrorism, where cyber crime resembles organized crime and is ruthlessly driven by greed, profit, and a lust for power. From the opening moments, FBI agents are on high alert once it’s been determined that a sophisticated hacking device created an explosion at a nuclear power plant in Hong Kong, causing joint cooperation between high level American and Chinese investigators, where Los Angeles FBI agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) is assigned to work with a Chinese military officer from their cyber crime unit, Captain Chen Dawai (Wang Leehom) along with his sister Chen Lien (Tang Wei), both from Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (Se, jie) (2007). Dawai identifies the origin of the malware device, as it’s a variation on something he created along with his roommate in college at MIT, Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), currently serving a prison term for bank fraud and computer crimes, where like Hannibal Lecter in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991), his expertise would be needed to track down the perpetrators. Once sprung from jail, he takes a lead role on the case (much to the chagrin of the FBI), having a mix of roguish criminality and magazine cover good looks, but he’s light years ahead of the rest when it comes to modern era cyber crime, even though that’s hardly plausible after serving time in prison for five years. Due to the accelerated advances in the computer stratosphere, each year rapidly outdistancing the previous year’s revelations, previous cyber knowledge would be near obsolete when it comes to the sophisticated levels of government intelligence security measures. Nonetheless, this becomes an elaborate Mission Impossible (1966 – 1973) storyline where Hathaway’s skill sets are impeccable, like a modern era James Bond, where he’s forced to fend off attackers as easily as navigating his way through heavily guarded computer networks.
Simultaneous to the power plant attack was a similar hacked entry into the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, causing the numbers to go through the roof, where this team has to identify the missing connection. Taking a tour of exotic lands in the Far East, from Hong Kong to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, and finally Jakarta, Indonesia, this is a veritable travelogue into faraway lands, adding a texture of rich atmosphere throughout, guided by the haunting 80’s sounding synthesizer score from Atticus Ross. While Harry Gregson-Williams is listed as a co-composer, the final musical selections chosen by Mann for the film are almost exclusively written by Ross. One of the clever details Mann gets right is his less than admirable portrayal of the NSA, who are viewed with a deep-seeded distrust by actual computer experts from Silicon Valley, especially after they were secretly spied on and targeted by their own government. Here they are in possession of a secret supercomputing service known as Black Widow, capable of analyzing data faster than anything available to the outside world, but they refuse FBI requests for assistance, as they are viewed as hidden and entrenched behind a veil of governmental secrecy and impenetrability, more interested in protecting themselves than in helping to solve the crimes, even after it’s been established that the nuclear accident was a dry run for an even larger catastrophe that has mass international implications. Quite unlike most thrillers, Mann subverts the stereotypes where the Americans are viewed as petty, closed-minded incompetents that refuse to see the bigger picture while actually generating more sympathy to the Chinese. While there is the obligatory romance between Hathaway and Chen Lien, there is also a flamboyant sweep through picturesque geographical regions, where much of it plays out like a road movie with spectacular backdrops. Some of the most remarkable imagery comes from the prevalent use of modern urban architecture, where humans often seem small and insignificant by comparison. Nonetheless they are seen racing through scenes of astonishing beauty, stopping occasionally for shootouts with the bad guys on the run, even dropping into an underground sewer system in pursuit, where our team has to crack their computer codes and penetrate their invisibility in identifying the mastermind behind the operations named Sadak (Yorick van Wageningen). Two of the better scenes are in marked contrast, one featuring Chen Lien dressed fashionably all in white as she devises a devious plan to obtain access to Sadak’s bank accounts, dressed in splendor like corporate royalty as she enters the bank pretending to be a featured speaker at an important meeting taking place, but needs to copy her written presentation which was ruined by a coffee spill, handing the unsuspecting security guard a USB drive which instantly breaks into the bank’s computer network. The other is a beautifully choreographed sequence that takes place during an annual Balinese Hindu celebration called Nyepi or “Day of Silence,” where they ask for forgiveness to atone for their sins, becoming a massive ritual procession of devout worshippers dressed in red flowing saffron robes. Like a scene out of Zhang Yimou who thrives on mass spectacle, this is the colorful setting for the final showdown, much of it taking place against the flow of humanity, where forces of good and evil are intertwined in search for a restorative balance, with many lives lost, where the viewer is left in an ambiguous haze of disorientation where only time will tell if there’s a brighter future on the horizon.