The Great Hack (Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim, 2019) – Full Original – Documentary
This documentary examines how a once obscure technology firm named Cambridge Analytica played a major role in two of the 2010s most important electoral events: the Brexit referendum in the UK in 2015 and the 2016 US presidential election which brought Donald Trump to power. Via extensive interviews with a number of key figures in the scandal the film recounts the company´s dubious methods of using data culled illegally from social media platforms to microtarget advertising and in some cases fake news at unsuspecting potential voters.
The Great Hack is the latest in a decently long line of Netflix documentaries to take on contemporary political history, joining recent films like Knock Down the House and The Edge of Democracy as well as films that go far back into the streamer´s past, including The Square and (the awful) Mitt Romney doc Mitt. Generally speaking, this line of Netflix original film production and distribution has been a rich one for viewers at least (there has not been any statistical discussion of the films as yet), providing them with a range of mainly (i.e. Mitt excepted) thoughtful and artful films that speak to the contemporary zeitgeist. TGH is no exception, as the film is an engaging look at a vital contemporary issue that affects Netflix´s core audience of young adults in myriad ways.
At its heart TGH is a virtual adaptation of a series of articles that have been published in The Guardian (indeed, the stories are still emerging in the wake of the film´s release) and the reporter that has led the investigation, Carole Cadwalladr, who ultimately becomes the film´s protagonist.
This creates two problems for the film, problems that I think it overcomes quite handily, but still they are problems: Firstly, if you have read this reporting, the film will largely be redundant in terms of its content, that is except for getting to meet the personalities involved. (As we´ll see, given the complexity of Brittany Kaiser as a character, this still makes the film well worth watching.) The other major problem for the film is that its narrative catalyst and structuring device of using David Carroll´s quest to retrieve his personal data from Cambridge Analytica is fairly boring, anticlimactic and ultimately forgettable. My suspicion is that the film-makers settled on this device early on in the making of the film and then were pleasantly surprised by all that came out in The Guardian (much like a film like Icarus in this respect) but for whatever reason felt obliged to retain their original device. Really, they should have discarded it.
These problems notwithstanding, the film is consistently engrossing and sometimes fascinating in ways that go beyond the revelations about Cambridge Analytica itself. Co-directors Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim utilize the graphic design of contemporary social media to narrate the film and connect its various storylines. While this is not exactly unique in contemporary cinema, here it is effective and has an additional thematic resonance as it reminds us of the inescapable nature of social media in this day and age. Watching a film about the dangers of online surveillance, you might very well ask why these experts on that very subject keep using those technologies. Because they don´t have any other choice, the film reminds us, for better or worse such platforms have become our only way to communicate.
The film´s centerpiece from a dramatic point-of-view however, is that the contrast it draws between its two main female characters: Cadwalladr herself and Brittany Kaiser, a former CA executive turned whistleblower. Cadwalladr is presented as the consummate idealistic heroine, unflinching in her resolve to investigate the story and articulate in sharing her findings. Not only is she the moral center of this film, but she seems like a posterfigure for journalism generally, an all-too necessary but increasingly precarious profession in our contemporary world.
Kaiser on the other hand is fascinatingly unknowable. She claims to be a reformed member of the dark cabal that has apparently helped to illegally influence two of the most disastrous elections in recent history, but it is difficult to believe that she has been motivated to change her ways for anything but selfish reasons. Her actions in the film (and after as she is now claiming things happened that she apparently denied in the film itself) and her body language in interviews (which features a great deal of dead-eyed staring that is inscrutable and unsettling) make you think she knows more than she is letting on, even as she claims to be confessing everything. Her exact motives could be shame and contrition as she says, or they could be vanity (always a possibility when cameras are part of the equation), or self-preservation, or something else entirely.
I am in two minds as to whether Amer and Noujaim should have given us more guidance as to how to feel about Kaiser. On one hand, they have a duty as documentarians to take a stand on their characters, but on the other hand Kaiser is so fascinating precisely because we can never quite pin her down. Either way, she is an unforgettable character.
Besides acting as a key entry in Netflix´s catalog of political documentaries, TGH is also yet another critical representation of social media and modern technology to be found on the service, which ironically is part of that same modern technological environment. Black Mirror and 13 Reasons Why are the most famous Netflix original works in this vein, but a number of films fit this mold as well, including fiction films like Cam and documentaries like Print the Legend, as well as many others. Hopefully this film can tap into the more positive elements of the world it depicts and effectively make audiences aware of that darker side.
Co-directors Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim also worked on The Square (Amer as producer, Noujaim as director), a 2013 documentary that Netflix acquired as an original film in the US market and others.
In co-director Jehane Noujaim, the film features a female director. The directing pair are Egyptian and for the first time in their illustrious careers (besides The Square they also collaborated to make the superb documentary Control Room about Al Jazeera) they were given a chance to make a film that did not directly pertain to their national or ethnic backgrounds. Traditionally a film with themes like this one, that are “universal” or not specifically about race, religion or ethnicity, would all too often be handed to white film-makers, so this is a welcome departure from standard practice by Netflix and its partners.