By: Kevin Jordan

Disappointed for all the wrong reasons.

Have you ever felt simultaneously pleased and disappointed in a movie?  Have you ever felt those two things for the exact same reason?  That’s what Blackhat did to me.  Unless you are a secret agent or an athlete, chances are pretty good that your profession is very rarely, if ever, depicted in a movie.   When I was a kid, baseball was my life, so I watched just about every baseball movie released (I promise I’m going somewhere with this).  I could never understand why the actors playing pitchers (my position) almost always looked as if they were taught how to pitch by a cockroach humping a sock puppet.  Tony Danza (Angels in the Outfield), Chelcie Ross (Major League), and Thomas Ian Nicholas (Rookie of the Year) – among others – not only insulted baseball, but insulted actors by not bothering to even attempt to learn how to actually pitch.  I always thought their punishment should have been to hand-wash a minor league team’s jock straps for a month, but that was before we had Internet polls.  Twenty years later, I’m not a professional baseball player (frowny-face), but I am a cyber-security professional.  When I found out someone made a movie called Blackhat, and after watching the preview, I was salivating at the prospect of a movie that was sure to do as much disservice to my profession as Danza did to baseball.

It’s easy to understand why I was expecting this movie to be idiotic in regards to cyber-security.  For one thing, the last twenty years are littered with movies and television shows featuring hackers or computer experts and most of them are hilariously bad from a technical standpoint (yes, I’m a nerd – get over it).  That’s not to say that some of them weren’t entertaining or good, just that if you know anything about computers (i.e. know the difference between a keyboard and a monitor), those movies become comedies.

For another thing, the preview all but guarantees that the movie will be technically moronic.  The premise appears to be that hackers have taken over a nuclear reactor and that only a blackhat hacker can stop them.  One character even explicitly states “we need a blackhat hacker,” which is the line that convinced me this movie would be dumb.  A blackhat hacker is a hacker who commits crimes; why wouldn’t they need a whitehat hacker (a hacker who does not commit crimes)?  On top of that, we see Chris Hemsworth running around shooting people and having sex with some hot chick.  I promise you, this is almost the exact opposite of what a blackhat hacker would be.  To my surprise, not only is that absurd blackhat line not in the actual film, but the film turns out not to be a technical dumbass.  And, that premise isn’t even the actual premise.

The actual premise is hackers have attacked a Chinese nuclear reactor, the New York stock exchange, and more attacks are sure to follow.  The Chinese and American governments form a team to identify and catch the hacker.  The team is comprised of FBI Agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis), Chinese Captain and MIT graduate Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang), network engineer/Chen’s sister Lien (Wei Tang), and some other agents that are definitely going to die when the shooting starts.  After the first two attacks take place, Chen sees the malicious computer code used for the attacks and immediately recognizes it code that he co-wrote while at MIT.  Guess which hammer wielding Avenger was the co-author and Chen’s roommate at MIT?

Nicholas Hathaway (Hemsworth) is the blackhat hacker – who, incidentally, is never once referred to as such during the film – and is in prison for his crimes.  Chen insists that Hathaway is vital to the investigation due to his familiarity with the code and became pleased that Michael Mann (director/writer) came up with a logical reason for needing Hathaway rather than just that stupid preview line.  The rest of the film is the team following the digital breadcrumbs until they finally figure out what the hacker’s true goal and identity are.

As pleased as I was that the preview was complete bullshit, I was very disappointed that the movie didn’t go cyber-stupid on us.  They actually did an admirable job portraying the digital forensics investigation, even to the point of showing us screenshots of command line interfaces and actual commands on computer screens.  While I’m no expert UNIX administrator, I recognized much of what we saw and they weren’t just typing nonsense on the screen.  What impressed me most was, as far as the hacking part of the movie, they do a lot of social engineering, which is definitely the most effective hacking technique for gaining entry into systems (and places for that matter) rather than just putting some guy at computer who can hack any system with a few keystrokes.  The only truly ridiculous part was when Hathaway tricks an NSA senior agent into clicking on an attachment in an email to change his password and Hathaway convincing agent Barrett that the NSA won’t notice.  You might be able to trick some secretary at a law firm into doing that, but not an NSA agent (if we’ve learned anything about the NSA in the past year and a half it’s that they would have known Hathaway’s intentions before Hathaway did).  But, hey, they just included a phishing attack, which alone makes this movie smarter than most.

I’m sorry if I’ve bored you a little bit, but the reason I’ve spent so much time talking about the technical details is because the movie was so boring that the tech details were more interesting than the movie itself.  With a running time of 133 minutes, this movie is easily a half an hour too long.  The action scenes are very few and far between and the downtime in between just isn’t engaging for non-technical wienies and it takes almost two hours before the hacker’s motivation is finally revealed.  Since the first two attacks take place in the first ten minutes of the movie, that’s nearly two hours of time for the audience to wonder when the movie is going to get to the point.  And, when the reveal finally does happen, it’s a huge letdown because the stock exchange hack makes the final hack redundant.

For all the time spent on the investigation, almost no time is devoted to character development.  Chen and Wei have no apparent sibling bond at all and their relation to each other only becomes relevant after Chen discovers that Hathaway is sleeping with Wei.  On that note, Wei’s only job in this movie is to provide Hathaway with some sex and make him rethink his criminal past.  Even though she’s supposed to be the network expert, I’m not sure she even touches a keyboard until the last ten minutes of the film.  Agent Barrett is given even less to do as Davis is relegated to making scowly faces and phone calls.  And just to make sure everybody got the short end of the script, the villain isn’t heard or seen from until the last five minutes of the film, with the exception of a couple of short instant messages with Hathaway.  If his character is ever even named in the movie, I missed it.

All of that is the long way of saying that this movie was a disappointment because it wasn’t even close to the preposterous crap that I was hoping for.  Instead of being an idiotic and nonsensical, but entertaining action flick like Lucy, it ended up being a boring slog of a movie that was more interested in lines of code than entertainment.  But if we learned anything it’s to never, ever, click on strange e-mail attachments.

Rating: Ask for nine dollars back and hope Hollywood leaves your profession alone.

American Sniper

By: Kevin Jordan

If only this movie were as interesting as its preview.

When you were in school, you probably asked the following question at least once a week – “why are we learning this?”  That’s the way I felt after watching American Sniper, a movie that managed to make sniping and war sound like a lesson as given by Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  While I didn’t actually fall asleep during the movie, I found my mind wandering as much as any bored student in school.

American Sniper is based on the autobiography of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL who served four tours of duty as a sniper in Iraq after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.  Before you get upset that I’m about to give a negative review of this film, know that it has nothing to do with the actual Chris Kyle and everything to do with the movie being just above lousy.  I’m glad there are guys like Kyle that are willing to sacrifice themselves for our country, just like I’m sad there are directors like Clint Eastwood making disappointing movies about those guys.

Since this movie is getting award buzz, you’ve probably seen the previews more than once and you were just as interested in seeing this movie as I.  The preview shows Chris (Bradley Cooper) in the back of a Humvee, talking to his pregnant wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), on a satellite phone when Chris’s team comes under enemy fire.  Chris drops the phone and Taya drops to her knees as she listens to the battle, fearing the worst.  It’s a very engaging scene because you immediately are concerned for Chris and Taya.  Unfortunately, the preview is more tense and engaging than nearly the rest of the entire film and whatever relationship those two had in real life is barely displayed in the film.

The biggest problem with the movie is it never commits to any narrative and by the end of the film you won’t know what the point of the movie was.  That preview scene should have been a crucial part of the story, but it turns out to be one of a string of anecdotes from Chris’ life.  That preview scene would have nicely fit a number of possible narratives:

  • Chris and Taya’s relationship and the strain his deployments put on it.
  • A rival sniper trying to take out Chris and collect a bounty.
  • The hunt for the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
  • The hunt for al-Zarqawi’s enforcer, “The Butcher.”
  • The point of the war and its effect on our soldiers.
  • Chris helping wounded vets or those with PTSD cope with rejoining American society.

Any one of those had the potential to be a really compelling movie, but Eastwood and writer Jason Hall seemed bent on sticking to a clinical accounting of Chris’ stories while not exploring any of those narratives so you never feel like anything was at stake during the movie.  Of course, it’s hard to be too surprised by Eastwood considering he’s the same guy that lectured an empty chair at the Republican National Convention just a couple of years ago.

Because they chose not to flesh out any of those narratives, this movie could have been about any American soldier of the past 13 years.  Chris is portrayed as a guy whose entire motivation is to protect America, a guy whose multiple tours have changed him, a guy whose family is breaking down due to his absences, and a guy who has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after his tours.  Doesn’t that describe a large population of American soldiers?  Does the fact that he is billed as the most lethal sniper in American history matter at all in this movie considering his missions are almost never loftier than “provide cover for squads clearing houses?”  None of the events depicted truly connect with the events preceding or following, regardless of whether they occur at home or in the field.  The question I found myself continually asking during the way-too-long two-hour-and-twelve-minute running time is “why are we seeing this?”

For comparison, we can look at a couple of other (much better) sniper movies – Sniper (with Tom Berenger and Billy Zane) and Enemy at the Gates (with Jude Law and Ed Harris) – both of which have very defined narratives so you know what’s at stake.  In Sniper, Berenger and Zane are on an assassination mission, but the movie is really about what it takes to be a sniper and kill another person (incidentally, the idea of killing people is definitely not a concern in American Sniper except when it’s a child).  Enemy at the Gates is a much closer comparison as it is based on the tales of the most decorated Soviet sniper of World War II (Vasily Zaitsev), specifically focusing on his months-long duel with a German sniper in Stalingrad during the war.  Enemy at the Gates is the movie American Sniper wanted to be (American Sniper even steals Enemy at the Gates’s opening scene depicting the young sniper hunting with his father), but fails in every way possible.

If I haven’t convinced you of how lazy this storytelling was, consider this example of Eastwood and company falling asleep at the wheel.  Chris is portrayed as having gone through SEAL training prior to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and during that training he tells a drill instructor that he is 30 years old.  At the end of the movie, we are told he is killed in 2013 at the age of 39.  How did Chris manage to age only nine years over a (minimum) twelve year span?  Remember, the writer actually wrote that down in the screenplay.

Despite the fact that the movie is essentially pointless and storyless, Cooper keeps the movie from being a complete waste of time.  There is simply no way anyone envisioned this kind of performance when we saw him playing a douchebag in The Wedding Crashers, and Silver Linings Playbook seemed like more of an anomaly than anything.  He appeared to be destined for a career of fun action romps and dirty comedies, but now we realize we’ve been underestimating him.  I wish I could say the same thing about Sienna Miller, but Taya was so one-dimensional and under-used after her initial meet-cute bar scene with Chris, that Miller never stood a chance.

Before I go, you should know that I have not read the book, nor had I even heard of Chris Kyle prior to seeing this movie.  I have read a few things regarding the authenticity of his stories, but none of that affected my opinion of this movie.  Maybe he was an American hero or maybe he was just another soldier, but either way, this movie didn’t care.

Rating: Ask for six dollars back and for Eastwood to quit lecturing.  …Bueller?