'The Great Hack': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
This persuasive warning about data collection and algorithms will air on … Netflix.

Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim's doc captures the nightmare of data crime, the ramifications of the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal and a chilling view of democracy's erosion.

So, um, why are any of us still on Facebook?

If your determination to remain on the world's favorite social media platform for high-school schadenfreude, poorly sourced political memes and Candy Crush bonus lives withstood allegations that Facebook allowed a data company called Cambridge Analytica to access a trove of information on users that was possibly parlayed into swinging the U.K.'s Brexit vote and our 2016 election, expect that resolve to be tested again by Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim's documentary The Great Hack.

Stretching over a frequently gripping, occasionally redundant 139 minutes, The Great Hack uses a decent rehash of the Cambridge Analytica scandal as the starting point for an interesting two-pronged character study, an instigation for provocative ideas about data crime and what is ultimately a really, really, really conflicted look at when it's terrifying having corporations learning things about our online habits and when it's cool.

The Great Hack begins with a smart conceit, visualizing the world as existing in a miasma of data, a haze of pixels emanating from every person walking down the street, bursting from every window, kicking up clouds of virtual dust with every tweet or shared YouTube video. It's presented as the way David Carroll sees the world, though I have a hard time believing Carroll tweets with keyboard noises and that annoying Twitter chirping sound activated. A professor at Parsons School of Design, Carroll is the appropriately named David in a David-and-Goliath story that helped bring the shadiness of Cambridge Analytica to light. Carroll is a quintessential and uncomplicated crusading hero, paired with data rights lawyer Ravi Naik, who says right-minded things like: "Data rights really are modern human rights."

Carroll is our point-of-entry both because he got the ball rolling on this scandal and because he's easy to like. It would be harder to hook viewers by telling them that The Great Hack features Brittany Kaiser as its co-hero, since the former Cambridge Analytica staffer is as unlikable a protagonist as I can imagine. Initially blissfully uninterested in facing the ramifications of what she helped Cambridge Analytica do, Kaiser seems to expect to be hailed as a whistleblowing queen and there's a marvelous disconnect between the way she sees herself, the way Carroll sees her and the effective impartiality with which the directors are willing to let her hang herself. Kaiser also could have been presented as the villain, but she's not. Alexander Nix and Mark Zuckerberg probably fill that role, mostly in televised testimony, rather than original interviews.

Carroll and Kaiser steer the best parts of The Great Hack and mostly keep you from focusing on how much time Amer and Noujaim give to Carole Cadwalladr's exceptional reporting and video interviews from the Guardian, the damning Channel 4 Cambridge Analytica report and those Nix and Zuckerberg Parliament/Senate appearances and news reports galore — all things that aren't so far in the past that the filmmakers couldn't assume some knowledge or memory on the part of viewers.

Although Brexit and the Trump victory are the front-and-center results of this data disaster, this isn't portrayed as a left/right debate. In fact, Brexiteers and Trumpians might take this all as a compliment, the argument going that both sides try comparable strategies and the winners just happen to be the ones who use the tools best. The most chilling parts of the documentary capture Cambridge Analytica operatives as cackling mercenaries, not partisan hacks. Nobody mentions Russia until late in the doc. It just isn't the primary story. The story is more about data producing voting profiles and voting profiles giving a sense of "persuadable" voters and how relentless targeting of those voters can sway an election whether it's here or Trinidad & Tobago.

The version of The Great Hack that premiered this week at Sundance was described as a work-in-progress, and while there was no real evidence that this cut was rough, the story is in such a non-stop state of unfolding that even if Netflix were to premiere the doc next week, it might need to be updated.

Oh and yes, The Great Hack is a Netflix film and I urge you to stop and give consideration to that irony, because I couldn't stop. Nobody's accusing Netflix of collaborating with Wikileaks, but this is a service that knows precisely how long it takes you to watch one of their original series, tinkers with the thumbnail screenshots each viewer sees based on past preferences, can tell when you rewatch a scene of kickass action or random nudity and can validate the veracity of a marginal, unvetted documentary simply by placing it in the same row as an acclaimed Oscar winner.

Toward the end of The Great Hack, Carroll worries that "by letting algorithms make all our choices for us, we are surrendering our free will," so enjoy whatever movie Netflix tells you to watch after you finish this one.

Don't mind me, though. I'm off to share this review on Facebook.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres; work-in-progress)
Company: Netflix
Directors: Karim Amer, Jehane Noujaim
Screenwriters: Karim Amer, Erin Barnett, Pedro Kos
Producers: Karim Amer, Geralyn Dreyfous, Judy Korin
Executive producers: Nina Fialkow, Lyn Lear, Regina Scully, Sarah Johnson, Mike Lerner
Editors: Erin Barnett, Carlos Rojas

139 minutes