The Great Hack is a new documentary that is available to stream on Netflix. This story concerns the scandal involving consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, which collected personal data from Facebook users without their permission, through the eyes of several affected people. This documentary interested me because it could potentially teach me more about the 2018 scandal and while it does fulfill that expectation, it can also sometimes be a chore to watch.
On a filmmaking level, The Great Hack is adequate if not somewhat disappointing. The documentary opens up with an incredibly well-shot sequence that involves a wooden structure in Nevada. A woman revealed as Brittany Kaiser, a former director of program development at Cambridge Analytica and one of the two major whistleblowers, who to be signs “Cambridge Analytica” on the structure that is later burned down over a British voiceover who acknowledges that she has “traveled a long way from an idealistic intern in Barack Obama’s campaign to working for an organization that keeps pretty unsavory company.” This voiceover is a U.K. Parliament member who questions Kaiser at her hearing. This voiceover marked one of several times where subtitles randomly appear. I had to check my settings just to make sure I didn’t turn them on. These subtitles, while off-putting at first, may actually be helpful to viewers who won’t understand dialogue from low-quality footage such as the hearings.
The documentary then follows Associate Professor David Carroll, who famously requested that Cambridge Analytica give him back all the data they had about him. We know that Carroll is a professor because we see him teach a college course where he asks his students if they ever saw ads that convinced them that their microphones were listening in to their conversations. As documentarians Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim follow Carroll throughout New York City, the movie shows graphics that represent social media and internet activity of pedestrians that surround Carroll. This social activity eventually becomes dust parcels that ascend into the air. Bad narration from Carroll leads into crazy visuals about the current social and political climate before the title card appears. The film later shows Carroll draw out a timeline in his apartment of Trump’s 2016 social media marketing—or at least that’s what I think is happening. This early portion with Carroll leans on parody complete with parody-worthy lines such as “Who was feeding us fear? And how?”
Thankfully, the film shifts focus onto other interviewees and become more accessible with its presentation. The one scene where the filmmaking especially shines is when Carroll and Kaiser watch Mark Zuckerberg’s U.S. Senate hearing. The screen is split with half showing Kaiser’s face as she watches the testimony and the other showing Zuckerberg on the stand. When Senator Maria Cantwell asks Zuckerberg if Facebook employees were involved with Project Alamo, Cambridge Analytica’s voter database for Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, he responds that he does not know if Facebook employees were involved with Cambridge Analytica. The half with Zuckerberg switches to Carroll’s face as him and Kaiser are both in disbelief at Zuckerberg’s response. Through these reactions, this scene shows viewers how Facebook handled the situation in a sloppy manner and that the reputation of their brand has been damaged.
Certain perspectives in The Great Hack are more interesting than others. As implied earlier, I am not super into many of Carroll’s scenes. I’m sure he means well and have nothing but respect for him, but something about his snarkiness rubs me the wrong way. Fortunately, Amer and Noujaim spend plenty of time with Kaiser who has the most captivating scenes. Although she went from human rights work to helping conservative politicians through data mining, viewers can still sympathize with Kaiser because she explains how she got to this point and how she will repent. One perspective that I would have liked to see more of is that of another Cambridge Analytica whistleblower named Christopher Wylie. The film shows one interview with him and his testimony in front of the U.K. Parliament, but that’s it.
The main reason that everyone will want to watch The Great Hack is because of the information it gives about the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Even with the pre-existing knowledge of the infamous consulting firm, this film highlights all the nefarious ways that the company used private data from unsuspecting users to turn the tides in major elections such as the 2016 Presidential Election and the Brexit vote. I might consider some of what I learned as eye-opening.
Verdict: 3.5 out of 5
Despite its flaws, The Great Hack is worth watching due to the material it covers. Learning from people who were affected by the scandal makes up the documentary’s so-so presentation. The movie probably won’t receive any Oscar consideration since it wasn’t released in theaters.