Wednesday, October 30, 2019

DOC NYC Shortlist Spotlight: The Great Hack

In advance of DOC NYC 2019, which begins November 6th, I’m making my way through some of the contenders on the annual Features Shortlist, which selects the films likeliest to contend for the Oscar for Best Documentary.

The Great Hack
Directed by Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim
DOC NYC Screenings

It’s a changing world, with the political landscape in America having become truly temperamental and confrontational in recent years. Journalism is under attack with proclamations of fake news and other nefarious influences, and everyone seems to agree that those they don’t like are doing truly objectionable things. What’s not as apparent on the surface is how the opinions that we form are shaped by factors we don’t even know exist. The extent to which data is being collected and utilized is astonishing, and those who come forward to share what they know about it warn that this is just the beginning.

This documentary follows several individuals with expertise in how data is used and just how much of it is actually legally permissible, with reporting by Carole Cadwalladr, who found herself targeted by falsified videos in an attempt to discredit her. David Carroll seeks to sue a company called Cambridge Analytica for collecting his data without his permission, while Brittany Kaiser, a former high-ranking employee at the company, unearths proof that the firm, which was heavily involved both in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the push for Brexit, broke the law as Congress demands answers from Cambridge Analytica’s CEO, Alexander Nix.

This is a film that charges forward with its assertions of blatant violations of privacy and reasonable expectations, with its subjects eager to share what they know since they believe that everyone should be aware of just what they’ve unknowingly signed themselves onto by mindlessly accepting terms and conditions. They comment incredulously on testimony given under oath that contradicts what they know to be true and detail as much as they can when interviewed directly about what they did and what they know others were doing far beyond their purported parameters.

At times this film feels like a Michael Moore project, with Carroll’s quest to have his grievances heard feeling decidedly far-fetched and done more for the sake of making a point, which it decidedly does. It’s most similar to “Icarus,” a film that uncovers many layers of a concerted globing operation hiding in plain sight. Kaiser, who grew up as a liberal and then transformed into a conservative before rebounding once she realized that she couldn’t continue down her path, is a particularly fascinating subject. Where this film truly succeeds is in its breakdown of the purposeful targeting of susceptible parties, and just how systematically their opinions can be changed. It’s a terrifying concept, and one that this film does its very best to sound the alarm on before it’s too late to turn back.


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