Sunday, August 11, 2019

Technology-Focused Documentary The Great Hack Works Best In Its Most Human Sequences

America's 2016 Presidential Election has turned the entire planet upside down in countless respects, but it's especially upended how we perceive technology and the impact it can have on the real world. The Great Hack is a new documentary exploring this through the eyes of a number of people, most notably Professor David Carroll. Here's a fellow who has always been interested in technology and the internet but in the wake of the scandal associated with companies like Cambridge Analytica and Facebook taking peoples personal information without their consent, he begins a quest to get his own information back from Cambridge Analytica. While his extended struggle to get his personal information back is underway, both the British and U.S. governments begin to interrogate people associated with these attacks, most notably former Cambridge Analytica employee Brittany Kaiser.

The Great Hack's biggest shortcoming is it's messier nature. When making a documentary about something like the Cambridge Analytica hacking of 2016, it's understandable to want to approach this topic in an expansive manner that runs through every detail with a fine comb from numerous perspectives. However, as executed here, hopping between assorted people ends up being making the feature messy rather than enlightening. This is most notably seen in how the initially prominent David Carroll plotline eventually fades into the background as Brittany Kaiser and her own plight enter the picture. 

Kaiser is a morally complex figure, a former Obama 2008 campaign intern turned Trump-supporting Cambridge Analytica bigwig who is starting to grapple with the widespread consequences of both her own behavior and her own associates. Watching her struggle with the responsibility she has in all of the mayhem this Hacking has caused turns out to be the most intriguing part of The Great Hack. In a movie all about technology, its best scenes tend to be the ones thriving on intimate humanity. Specifically, such scenes concern Kaiser discernably messy reactions to the newest bombshells in the multitude hacking scandals she's caught up in that see her going from laughing it off with a witty retort to wiping away tears in the span of seconds.

One wonders if The Great Hack might have been better off narrowing its focus exclusively on Kaiser since anytime directors Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim cut back to David Carroll in the second half of the movie, it feels like the film is doing so out of obligation rather than necessity. Maybe it's because Carroll rarely gets screentime to be defined as a human being beyond just his legal battle, but his storyline just doesn't become as emotionally engaging as the Kaiser sequences. Just as merely serviceable as the David Carroll subplot are a number of unimaginative visual flourishes scattered throughout the feature.

Such flourishes occasionally make the proceedings come off like a cheaply-produced basic cable documentary rather than a more polished production. An amateurish looking visual cue employed in the final half-hour to indicate to the viewer that we're watching a flashback is an especially distracting visual element. While its visuals and storytelling priorities leave much to be desired, The Great Hack did end up being interesting to watch more often than not. True, it doesn't drop a whole bunch of major revelations regarding the urgently relevant topics it's covering but it did consistently keep me at least mildly intrigued as to where it was going. 

That's primarily thanks to directors Amer and Noujaim keeping the production constantly moving and the smart idea to imbue the project an intense air evocative of classical political thrillers. Such an influence is especially found in the aforementioned Brittany Kaiser segments. Like how All The President's Men generated tension through following two normal human beings navigating a conspiracy far larger than themselves, Kaiser's sequences in The Great Hack engage your attention since she reacts to everything happening around her in a discernible human fashion. How can you not be interested in seeing what happens to a character like this one?

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