BEVERLY HILLS – A half-hour sitting across a table from Michael Mann is more than enough time to remind you of all the stuff you don't know. A consummate researcher-filmmaker, he never puts something out into the creative ether without knowing it inside and out, without knowing its world, its players – everything that needed to exist in order to birth it in the first place, he's canvased it. So no, he wasn't shocked to hear that last month, corporate giant Sony had been maliciously hacked leaving privileged information scattered to the public.
“Three years ago we were hearing about General Dynamics, that they got the plans for this fighter jet,” he says, referencing the 2010 disclosure that a number of defense contractors had been breached. “And the Home Depot hack [which saw over 50 million credit card accounts compromised in April of last year]. Major, major cyber criminal intrusions. When you get into the world of this, everything is vulnerable. Everything is porous. And you realize there's very little that can't be hacked. Someone's going to try to work their way into it. And the innovation comes from everybody on the planet who has a fast enough computer and the skills. I mean, 7-year-olds are taught programming in Estonia. We're in a different world now.”
The Oscar-nominated director's latest film, “Blackhat,” dives deep into this landscape of techno-terrorism. It's not a film of patience, like “Heat” or “The Insider,” either. It seems all too aware of its own immediacy, moving at a break-neck pace through a world of true modern warfare.
Ask Mann for a worst-case scenario from that world and he paints a bloodcurdling portrait: Whole infrastructure compromised. Water, sanitation, power grids – anything that makes the world go. “Everything runs off of PLCs, programmable logic controllers,” he schools. “It tells traffic lights when to turn green, when to turn red. It tells the centrifuges at Natanz in Iran how fast to spin to process plutonium. They control everything. If you can get into those and manipulate them, or you want to destroy something – the Iranians used a malware that overwrites. It wipes the data. You can't even recover it. That's what happened at Sony. The Iranians used that when they destroyed a bunch of data. Stuff like, 'What's in the pipeline?' 'We don't know.' 'What should we do with this next load of oil?' 'We don't know.' 'Who owes us what?' 'We don't know.' So you're causing significant chaos.”
In a given exchange he'll cover the Stuxnet computer worm designed to attack those PLCs, and then maybe reference the Bauhaus school of architecture as an analogy for his relationship with digital cinematography, with equal aplomb, of course. He brings you into the world he's immersed himself in in order to tell a dramatic story on screen, because by this point, it oozes out of him. It's an educational trip he can't help but share, eager to astound you with what astounds him. It's pretty infectious, really, even if you might fall behind here and there. He's always ready to catch you up.
But as an artist, the application of the knowledge is the thing for Mann. He's not interested in seeing people sit around typing on keyboards. It can be a challenge to make some of the material he explores cinematic, but it's a challenge he's often up to. One element that drew his attention with “Blackhat” was the representation of a virus spreading, something visualized in the early moments of the film as a stream of evil-doing data-disruption flows through circuitry as if from a burst dam.
“When I came to understand, through the research that I did, what a malware program is doing, I realized it's dramatic,” he says. “If those were people instead of ones and zeroes, this is very dramatic stuff. Some guy's sneaking in, he's opening up a back door, and some other guy across the world – once that back door is open, and he has a line of communication – he's pushing down a huge payload of malware, and that's going to do the real theft or damage. I could see it.”
He gets into the description, adding more detail. “The first guy who gets in, he's Trojanized,” he says. “He's hiding behind a packet that's in a firewall. He's got a legitimate header, like an ID number [in order to pass through detection]. But hidden within that is a separate, hidden packet, and that's the remote access tool. Now, you don't have to know all these terms, but I just wanted the dramatic concept: something is sneaking around, de-cloaks, scoots off, scurries around like a rat and opens a door. So we tried to make that graphic, and scary – because it's scary.”
Learning all of that, absorbing it, processing it – this is all of the fun for Mann when it comes to this work. Investigating another world fully, living it, breathing it, depicting it dramatically, that seems to be what makes him tick. It begins to take on a function beyond entertainment value, really. It's immersion of a different sort. And while you might not be an expert on things like forensics, late-18th Century American history, professional crime, Big Tobacco or cyber-terrorism when you walk out of a Mann movie, you sure know a thing or two that you didn't before the lights dimmed.
But, indeed, with “Blackhat,” the subject matter is scary. With the noted escalation in this type of disruption, one can only expect something major will be on the horizon. A card at the beginning of the trailer for film quotes former CIA Director Leon Panetta's ominous suggestion that “the next Pearl Harbor that we confront could very well be a cyber-attack.” As defense of one kind or another is implemented and new methodology is invented to bait and track hackers, “it's going to be an evolving war,” Mann says – with more authority than the next guy, surely.
(More with Mann in due time, specifically expanding on that nugget about digital photography.)
“Blackhat” opens in theaters Friday.