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Great Hack, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Good to know, often dull to watch."
3 stars

"The Great Hack" is one of the more glaring recent cases of "important topic that deserves a better documentary", a not-quite-so-long-as-it-seems slog that gives the audience very few details of how the process described by the title works but a great deal of sitting through testimony and talking with the same few people many times over to establish the same information. Maybe, as a Netflix production/acquisition, it's designed to be watched with a finger on the fast-forward button, but that doesn't seem like a great idea when the home-screen button is just millimeters away.

The hack in question is how Cambridge Analytica, a UK-based data-mining company whose clients have increasingly included political campaigns (favoring right-of-center candidates), used data scraped from Facebook to model the entire United States electorate in the 2016 election, allowing the Trump campaign to precisely target "persuadable" voters with large amounts of personalized advertising. Hearing this, an associate professor of digital media in New York, David Carroll, files suit in a British court to find out what personal information of his are on the company's servers. Meanwhile, a more official investigation is launched when former CA employee Christopher Wylie comes across as a whistleblower and points the investigating Parliamentary committee toward Brittany Kaiser, a former Obama campaign intern who would become a key employee at the company and knows where all the bodies are buried.

For as much as issues of digital privacy and personal information can often seem like they have become background noise because it's so pervasive and hard to practically restrict, The Great Hack is probably at its most interesting when filmmakers Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim track down and illustrate the details, whether that's the simple but effective visualization of data generated with each online interaction or laying out how an innocuous-seeming personality test provided the company with useful data. Case studies like how the company leveraged youth apathy during an earlier election in Trinidad and Tobago are insightful and horrifying, and while some of the reporting on how this works could probably come across as dry and mathematical, it's useful, even if harder to obtain.

Instead, the film puts much of its focus on the process of trying to call the company to account, talking with Carroll and Guardian reporter Carole Cadwalladr, who wrote a well-researched article on CA's operations. Eventually, the film spends a lot of time with Kaiser, and it's easy to understand why in the abstract - she's willing to talk, has an intriguingly paradoxical background, and occasionally comes across as eccentric. In practice, the filmmakers allow her to just eat the back half of the movie with seemingly every move chronicled in minute detail. Initially, it seems like the audience is being set up to be suspicious about her attempt to redefine herself as the story's hero as opposed to one of the villains, and maybe there's supposed to be some irony in the steady stream of her pushing her preferred but skewed narrative akin to how Cambridge Analytica would bombard "persuadables" with propaganda, but the film never really runs with that.

Or maybe by that point, she's really all the film has in terms of active, directly-knowledgeable sources, because CEO Alexander Nix is obviously not going to talk to the production. Despite that, it sometimes seems as if the filmmakers know it's dry material, with how they cut away to people excitedly reacting on social media, but that often backfires by highlighting just how little Carroll and Cadwalladr have to do at this point. It becomes watching people excitedly tweeting about things that are likely to have little lasting effect, and while it's often easy to get caught up in that in real-time, seeing it on-screen reveals it as a whole lot of nothing. Useful, perhaps, if they're going to go on to show how CA is not really gone but just reconstituted in another form, but no time is spent on that.

By the end, it's as if the filmmakers only talked to a couple of people and thus have to bulk their material up to make it feel like it has weight, but that's a technique that backfires when part of the idea is to get viewers to examine what they hear more closely. There's important and vital material to be found here, but all too often the storytelling instinct to focus on the people involved leads the filmmakers into dead ends.

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originally posted: 01/10/20 06:18:44
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Directed by
  Karim Amer
  Jehane Noujaim

Written by
  Karim Amer
  Erin Barnett
  Pedro Kos


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