Netflix documentary The Great Hack turns the Cambridge Analytica scandal into high drama

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

“We were so in love with the gift of this technology that nobody bothered to read the terms and conditions.”

“We got high-end connectivity, and we lost our way.”

“It felt like our minds had been hacked.”

Read the lines above in the most portentous and menacing tone imaginable, and you’ll get a good sense of how The Great Hack — a new Netflix documentary about the Cambridge Analytica scandal — approaches its subject matter. The Great Hack covers one of 2018’s biggest tech controversies: the revelation that political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica secretly collected 87 million Facebook users’ data. But the film spends more time dramatizing the scandal’s worst-case scenario than examining the facts — producing compelling personal narratives at the cost of valuable context and perspective.

What’s the genre?

Character-driven current-events documentary. The Great Hack starts with a light recap of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, enhanced with shimmering graphics that represent people’s data leaking from their phones and laptops. Then it jumps back to the start of the controversy, drawing from months’ worth of candid recordings following a few notable players.

The rest of the film, which is nearly two and a half hours long, plays out like a corporate drama with dual protagonists. (Co-director Jehane Noujaim also directed Startup.com, another documentary about a dysfunctional tech company.) David Carroll is a Parsons School of Design professor who sued Cambridge Analytica to find the source of its data. And Brittany Kaiser is a senior Cambridge Analytica employee who defected in the scandal’s early days, revealing parts of the company’s internal workings after leaving.

The filmmakers follow Carroll and Kaiser around the globe — sweeping through places like Carroll’s home city of New York, Kaiser’s temporary hideout in Thailand, and the desert landscape of Burning Man. With supporting detail from Guardian reporter Carole Cadwalladr and former company executive Julian Wheatland, among others, The Great Hack pieces together the story of a company undone by its own amoral hubris.

What’s it about?

In 2018, Cambridge Analytica became a potent symbol of social media’s dark side. Funded by conservative mega-donor Robert Mercer and tied to former Trump strategist Steve Bannon, the company claimed to micro-target voters with “military-grade” psychological manipulation tactics. It was (dubiously) credited with helping Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election, as well as helping pass the UK Brexit referendum.

Then, a former employee revealed that Cambridge Analytica had secretly acquired data from millions of Facebook users around 2014, taking advantage of Facebook’s lax privacy rules. Soon after, the UK’s Channel 4 ran a sting operation that captured CEO Alexander Nix discussing underhanded political influence tactics, including offering bribes to a candidate.

The resulting scandal raised broad concerns about data privacy and targeted advertising, triggering numerous government hearings and widespread condemnation of Facebook. Cambridge Analytica denied any wrongdoing, but its reputation was damaged beyond repair, and the company shut down in May of 2018.

What’s it really about?

The meteoric immolation of a would-be power broker. The Great Hack gestures at questions around privacy and cultural polarization. But it’s more interested in the particularities of Cambridge Analytica — like Kaiser’s apparent crisis of conscience, which led her to betray her mentor Nix, or Carroll’s team-up with UK privacy lawyer Ravi Naik, who used the UK’s data protection laws to take on the firm.

Brittany Kaiser’s story is by far the most interesting part of The Great Hack. A former member of Barack Obama’s campaign team, Kaiser comes off as a shrewd anti-hero whose true beliefs are nearly unreadable. She might be an embittered idealist who joined Cambridge Analytica after years of thankless and poorly paid progressive activism, only to recant after realizing she’d lost her way. Or she might be an opportunistic political operator who’s more interested in power than any particular ideology, refashioning herself as a whistleblower to evade the consequences of her actions.

Carroll’s tale is less dramatic, but he still works as a foil to Kaiser — he’s angry at having his data collected by Cambridge Analytica and deeply skeptical of her transformation. And both of them are aligned against Cambridge Analytica executives who protest that they’ve done nothing untoward, despite bragging in private about their supervillain-esque powers of manipulation.

Is it good?

The Great Hack is sometimes fascinating, especially when it’s delving into the shady inner workings of Cambridge Analytica. And it covers timely and important themes. But for a film about resisting propaganda, it’s surprisingly credulous.

Cambridge Analytica clearly breached Facebook users’ trust. There’s far less evidence that its “psychographic” tactics worked any better than traditional canvassing and broadly targeted ads. Some reports paint the company as a bumbling snake-oil hawker, suggesting that Mercer forced candidates to hire it as a condition of his donations. But while The Great Hack’s subjects hammer Cambridge Analytica for all sorts of deceptions, they appear to accept its sales pitch at face value — and so do the filmmakers, who present company marketing material and promotional speeches as unchallenged fact.

As a character-focused work, The Great Hack doesn’t build a serious case for Cambridge Analytica actually hacking people’s brains or getting Trump elected. It simply takes for granted that the firm posed a unique and existential threat to democracy, and that figures like Carroll and Kaiser are changing the course of history.

Consequently, the film can be downright hagiographic, with subjects endlessly congratulating each other on their bravery and importance. One of Kaiser’s friends compares her to the Biblical Apostle Paul. Tweets from Carroll — featuring commentary like “BOOM” and “Tick tock...” — pop up complete with adoring replies, which ends up seeming more inadvertently smug than righteously triumphant.

Similar to Noujaim and co-director Karim Amer’s previous documentary The Square, the The Great Hack’s narrative essentially wrapped up when the filmmakers ran out of time. The film peters out after wandering around with its characters for much too long, throwing in some minor digressions about the semi-related Russian “troll farm” scandal and Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference.

The Great Hack suggests that Silicon Valley’s larger privacy problems made a psychological warfare campaign inevitable. “There was always going to be a Cambridge Analytica. It just sucks for me that it was Cambridge Analytica,” laments Wheatland. But for social media addicts, there’s a potentially more painful possibility: that there’s no good reason for politicians to lavish attention on our every like and share, but companies like Cambridge Analytica will do it anyway.

What should it be rated?

The film’s most disturbing element is its reminder that you’re being constantly surveilled by would-be supervillains, and that’s not on the MPAA ratings rubric. So maybe a PG-13 for overall adult themes.

How can I actually watch it?

The Great Hack is streaming on Netflix as of July 24th.

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