CCNMA: Great hack-spectations — Swordfish
Posted on
October 31, 2013

Are your weekend entertainment plans certified? CCNMA is a weekly feature that explores the movie industry’s love-hate relationship with computing technology. This week’s movie is  ONE FROM THE VAULT.

Given the paranoid cybersecurity environment in which we live, it’s more than a little surprising that you can still find unredacted copies of the 2001 heist/hostage thriller Swordfish just sitting around, waiting to be picked up and popped in the DVD player by the next John Travolta movie facial hair historian, or film blogger assigned to compile a list of notable action scenes featuring a city bus. More than a little surprising, that is, because the movie includes a complete blueprint for how to penetrate the U.S. Department of Defense computer network in less than 90 seconds. I mean, how is the Defense Department even still in operation?

It’s actually pretty simple. You don’t even need to know anything about computer programming. You do have to find the best hacker in the world, but it turns out that even that guy doesn’t really have to know anything about computer programming (more about this in a moment). First you get an exclusive nightclub, presumably with free wifi, or at least (particularly in 2001) an available phone jack. Then you need a Dell laptop, a gorgeous blonde, a man with a gun and Halle Berry (I mean, come on, she only makes about one movie a year these days; what are the odds that she’s not available?).

So you get the best hacker in the world and take him to the club. Note: If the best hacker in the world is a woman, then, um, see if you can find the second-best hacker. If the second-best hacker is also a woman, then, er, maybe it’s not too late to get your deposit back from reserving the entire nightclub and just forget the whole operation. Back to the best hacker: Sit him down at the laptop, pull down his pants and then have the gorgeous blond put her mouth — well, I mean, what did you think she was there for? The guy with the gun points it at the hacker’s head, Halle Berry stands around looking bored, and then you just tell the hacker to crack the DOD net in 60 seconds or else BANG! Splat.

It works like a charm in Swordfish, because as Thomas Edison once said, “Genius is 99 percent having a gun to your head and 1 percent, no, really, what is that blonde woman doing down there?” Our hero, Stanley Jobson (Hugh Jackman), is so good that he makes it all the way through four failed attempts and STILL has time to stick the landing on his fifth try. After everybody settles down and has a drink, evil mastermind Gabriel Shear (Travolta) asks our man Stan how he did it.

First the Golden Boy says he dropped a logic bomb “through the trapdoor,” but Halle Berry butts in to point out that he couldn’t have done that because he didn’t have enough time. So Stan backtracks and says he used a “password snitcher,” but Halle Berry’s not buying that one, either, because, “Uh-uh.” Seeing that his beautiful mind has met its match, Stan fesses up: “Look, I don’t know exactly. I just see the code in my head. I can’t explain it.” Knowledge? Bah. All you need is raw instinct and, um, all of that other stuff (blonde, man with gun, etc.).

Remember our discussion in this space a couple of weeks back of ye olde stock movie character the code whisperer? Stanley Jobson has “code whisperer” on his business card.

Or, you know, he would if he had a business card.  At the beginning of the movie, S-Jobs is merely a humble ex-con who lives in a trailer and greases pump jacks at a Texas oil yard. Stan did time at “Leavenworth” for hacking the FBI network and unleashing a virus on the agency’s “Carnivore” surveillance program (paging Edward Snowden!). Now he’s legally barred from a) touching a computer, and b) being in the presence of his adorable young daughter, Leverage. Gabriel Shear sends Halle Berry to fetch him, but the nightclub gun-to-the-head hack is just a job interview, to find out whether Stan’s really any good.

The actual and mildly convoluted plot involves a forgotten DEA slush fund with $9.5 billion in it that Gabriel needs to fight terrorism. Seriously. Gabe is black ops FBI — so black ops that the other FBI agents in the movie don’t even know who he is — and he can’t make the world safe for democracy until he gets his $9.5 bil, ethical niceties such as not taking hostages, or not stealing from the government, be damned. Screenwriter Skip Woods has this weird conception of Gabriel as being both a Looney Tunes live-wire madman and a cold-hearted, clear-eyed Doer of What Needs to Be Done. (For further study see Jack Nicholson’s “you can’t handle the truth” speech to Tom Cruise at the end of A Few Good Men.)

After his nightclub audition, Stan checks in at Casa de Gabriel and eventually helps the cause by creating a “hydra” — because no mere worm will do — using the handy dandy worm software still stored on a forgotten, net-connected museum piece at Cal Tech (Stan’s alma mater). No, really, he has a worm-building utility (Worm Generator Tool V.1.2) with a Tool Set toolbar and everything.

Like his hacking, Stan’s worm-making is, hmm, more art than science. The “making a worm” montage is nearly three minutes long, with two different soundtrack songs, and features some of Hugh Jackman’s finest acting. Stan first puts his feet up to enjoy a pre-coding cigarette, then launches into a code-writing boogie that includes rapid-fire keypunching, fist-pumping, spinning in his swivel chair, clapping, whooping, talking to the code, wheedling the code, swearing at the code, banging his head on a desk, lamp slapping, head cradling, break-on-the-couch taking, wine swilling, out-loud counting, magic finger waggling, stand-up typing and a grand finale of hip-wiggling and booty-shaking. Stick with what works, I guess.

The computer stuff is jumbled together with elaborately preposterous stunts, amber-tinted action chases and shootouts, and arch meta-referential monologues, which was the style at the time. (Oh, you late ’90s and early ’00s action movies. You coy, demented high-concept hot messes, you!) So, yeah, if you need a quick-fix hack of a secure government network, then Swordfish is a hotbed of radical ideas. All other users beware — this movie wants to drop a logic bomb through your trapdoor.


HAPPY EASTER: There are a handful of IT and showbiz Easter eggs in Swordfish. The movie’s title is a reference to an old Marx Brothers routine, which gets a more explicit nod via a late-breaking scene at a bank in Monte Carlo. Stanley dishes a few sly details about the Cal Tech machine where his worm utility is hidden, and the only other hacker mentioned by name in the movie shares a surname with Linux godfather Linus Torvalds. Stanley also briefly name-checks engineer Gilbert Vernam, one of the fathers of modern cryptography, and there’s a note at the very bottom of the end credits crawl that reads, “Final password: Vernam.”

WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE, HALLE BERRY?: We know that Berry’s Ginger Knowles is not in the movie to (play Stanley’s organ), because a) there’s a gorgeous blonde for that, and b) she actually tells him, in an earlier scene, “I’m not here to (play your organ), Stan.” Well then. Ginger does get all up in Stan’s grill a few times, like when she busts his chops about logic bombs and such, but the real reason Berry is onboard is probably for what was, in 2001, a huge movie-publicity talking point: her first-ever topless scene. The actual moment is so thunderingly gratuitous and blatantly sexless as to be almost comical. Ginger is sitting on the deck of Gabriel’s Malibu dreamhouse reading, with a large hardbound book positioned directly in front of her chest. Stan walks up to ask about this or that small favor, Ginger lowers the book, and hey-oh! It’s your birthday, Stanley Jobson. There’s nary a whiff of flirtation, seduction, sexual tension. Just a generic nude sha-zay-am. “Can I borrow the car?” “Would you like a free show?” “I’ll be back later.” Good work, everybody.

MAGIC IS AS MAGIC DOES: Gabriel may not be an angel — see what I did there? — but he certainly has powers beyond the ken of mere mortal beings. There’s an old screenwriter’s trick where you have a character talk about something as though it explains everything, lob in a few obvious viewer nudges that back up whatever was said, and voila! It explains everything. Even when it doesn’t really explain anything. Here, it’s a scene where Gabriel discusses his admiration for Harry Houdini on account of the famous magician’s knack for misdirection: “What the eyes see and the ears hear, the mind believes.” The movie reveals a few of Gabriel’s more obvious shenanigans, but there’s nothing at all to explain the finale, which involves a helicopter, a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and zero hint of any wiggle room. There’s simply no way to make it completely add up, but hey, misdirection!

About the Author

Chip Hartweir is a Certified Cinemaniac who likes movies, computers and especially movies about computers. He has won numerous awards for writing about film and has a keyboard within arm's reach most hours of the day. E-mail him at chiphartweir (at) gmail (dot) com.

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