It takes all of twenty-five minutes for the phrase ‘fake news’ to rear its ugly head in Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim sobering new documentary for Netflix. By this point in the film, a conspiratorial tone has already established humanity to be doomed, corrupted and likely on the fast track to thinly veiled authoritarianism. But it is our willing acceptance of such a fate that horrifies. It’s our fault. In the words of Dr. David Carroll, one of three de facto narrators here: ‘We were so in love with the gift of this free connectivity that no one bothered to read the terms and conditions.’ Fake news? No, this is an all too real project of fear.
There’s a telling moment some mid-way through The Great Hack in which idealist turned Faustian turned whistleblower Brittany Kaiser mumbles ‘I never thought that everyone in the world would know who Cambridge Analytica are.’ It’s as close as the company’s former employee, a woman accused of having a hand in the gross mishandling of mass private and personal data, ever comes to hinting anything like a sense for remorse. Not that this is an expression of regret. Written in the subtext of the remark is the horror of a woman on whom culpability only very slowly dawns. Unlike her prior boss at Cambridge – Alexander Nix, who refused to be interviewed for the film – Kaiser presents as naive to the consequences of her actions and fascinatingly malleable to the flow of justice.
Kaiser is, by some distance, the most intriguing of the antagonists to feature in The Great Hack, not least for her conviction that she is among the brazen protagonists. Her panic on the fallout of one newspaper report, which alleges her involvement in Russian political influence on the west, makes for gripping viewing but is just one in a number of scenes that cast unto the film the tone of some high stakes thriller. More than once, Tom McCarthy’s Oscar-winning Spotlight strikes as an apt tonal comparison.
This is the story of the rise and fall of Cambridge Analytica, the British company considered responsible for the 2016 election of Trump in America and the success of Vote Leave closer to home. The former they proclaim proudly, the latter a guilty secret. ‘Oops…we won’ says Kaiser in a past recording. Such landsliding feats were achieved not by conventional campaigning but by the programmatical mining of Facebook accounts. Here, Carol Hanisch’s adage that the personal is political finds new meaning. Personality, we are told, drives behaviour, which, in turn, commands political leaning. Target the right personalities – those on the cusp of polarisation – and a battle can be won. At best, the practice is unethical; at worst, it’s down right illegal.
Give or take the odd flash of grey, Amer and Noujaim make no qualms of their feelings on the matter and issue forth a convincing argument. Impressive visuals, reminiscent of The Matrix and Minority Report, do well to capture the unseen imprint of humanity’s e-obsession, with screens popping out of phones and tablets and pixels osmosing the air like dust from a beaten throw. Powering through the digital fog, Dr. Carroll frames the film, via his quest for answers. That, and the demand he issues to SCL, parent company of Cambridge Analytica, that they release the data records they have on him. By the end, it is clear this will never bear fruit. Be warned, The Great Hack is suffused in its own paranoia and rarely makes for happy viewing. The dissolution of Cambridge Analytica has neither wiped their technological advancements from history nor undone the havoc such progression and misuse wreaked upon societies the world over.
A touch on the long side, The Great Hack is another superior documentary for the Netflix library, which already includes a raft of critical hits. Perhaps this one falls a touch short in balance. Missing is an ear for the ground level human voices, those so-called ‘persuadables’ said to have had their minds changed by the Do So or Crooked Hillary campaigns Cambridge Analytica helped to drive. The argument for their existence is compelling but left unexplored on the concrete floor. Voices eschewing blame are prominent but those bearing the flack are conspicuous by the absence alone. There is little room for notions that agency exists still in the grassroots. As such, this is complex, engagingly comprehensive filmmaking and yet incomplete on specific planes. It is, nonetheless, a darkly impressive work.