The Great Hack (Karim Amer/Jehane Noujaim, 2019) 4 out of 4 stars.
Who remembers the distant history of the 2016 U.S. presidential election? The political turmoil since then has made the intervening almost-three years seem interminable, whether it be the firestorm caused by White House policy proposals and the resultant pushback, or the debasement of political discourse, reduced to tweets and retweets. We are a nation in crisis, though perhaps democracy is always fated to rise and fall in waves of anguish and stress before and after periods of relative calm. But what if we are now in an era where our thoughts and opinions could be engineered by others, our brains merely operating systems that fancy algorithms can tweak at will? Such is the thesis of the fascinating new documentary The Great Hack, out on Netflix today.
Directing – and real-life – partners Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim (The Square) bring us a diverse cast of characters from across the spectrum of actors in the social-media-meets-politics debacle of the very recent past. Occupying center stage in the narrative is the now defunct consulting firm Cambridge Analytica (C.A.), which offered up its data-mining services – data culled, in part, from silly Facebook polls and surveys like “Which Star Trekcharacter are you?” or “Which dog breed is ideal for you?” – to political campaigns, mostly of the right-wing variety. First there was Trinidad and Tobago, then Brexit in the United Kingdom (UK) and, finally, Donald Trump here at home. Disgraced C.A. CEO Alexander Nix was a master of the unctuous sell, his reptilian charisma seducing officials and employees, alike, despite his shady practices. Though we may all willingly sign off on taking these online quizzes, we don’t generally agree to have our profiles plundered for every last bit of info to be sent God-knows-where.
The film has three main subjects: Brittany Kaiser, C.A.’s former business development director now turned whistleblower; David Carroll, a professor at New York’s Parsons School of Design who brings suit against C.A. for improper use of his personal data; and Carole Cadwalladr, an investigative journalist whose reporting for The Guardianuncovers the deeply unsavory truth about C.A.’s actions. Given the public’s seeming acquiescence to the rapid erosion of privacy since the 1990s rise of the internet, accelerated to light speed with the development of social media, it might strike some as much ado about nothing that what we put out into the ether comes back to haunt our actual selves, but if we consider the increasing polarization of the country and the world, and the way in which our news feeds have been compromised by false stories that reinforce our prejudices, we should be concerned, or downright afraid. If someone, somewhere, with the push of a few buttons can manipulate large swaths of the population to vote in a particular manner (or not vote at all), then free will and democracy cease to be meaningful terms. We are once again serfs, only this time we don’t know it.
In addition to the gripping (terrifying) story, Amer and Noujaim deliver stunning graphics, as well, brilliantly visualizing the concept of our brains as computers under threat. The directors also wow with their continued access to the subjects, even as things turn sour for one of them, witnessing current events as they happen (much as did Laura Poitras’ 2014 Oscar-winning Citizenfour). Apparently, the founder of UK’s Brexit campaign is suing Netflix over the release of The Great Hack, so the drama goes on, even as I write this. Watch the film and join the fray! Also, #OwnYourData.
Want to know more about the film? Check out my interview with the directors!