A documentary about Cambridge Analytica — the shadowy, now-defunct “data intelligence” firm that played a role in both the election of Donald Trump and Brexit — could have gone wrong in multiple ways.
Perhaps it might have chosen to take the earnest liberal route, consisting of professorial talking heads, leading up to a URL on screen at the end about how “you can help.” It could have followed the path of just about every other documentary of the last decade about the internet, with wall-to-wall ominous music and weird animation meant to represent “cyberspace.” Or, it could have followed the route of various political documentaries of the Trump era and not paid the slightest mind to filmmaking or aesthetic considerations.
“The Great Hack,” which debuts on Netflix later this week, is better than all of that. It provides a fairly straightforward depiction of the rise and fall of Cambridge Analytica, which, during its short run, managed to almost completely upend the politics of two of the world's most powerful countries, while also helping to obliterate any trust that remained in the world’s most powerful social media platform, Facebook.
Indeed, in a film in which Steve Bannon, Nigel Farage, and various cybercriminal types make appearances, there's a good argument that the biggest villain of the piece is Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg.
The film establishes how the social media platform the majority of the people reading this use every day not only allowed this high level of subterfuge but also misled the public about what it knew and when it knew it. Facebook was fined $5 billion two weeks ago for its misdeeds – which actually caused the company's stock to rise because the fine was so small.
The film does a strong job with its explanation of the scandal, which to even the smartest mind can appear somewhat complicated. But it also tells a compelling personal story about Brittany Kaiser, the young woman who in the space of a decade went from Obama volunteer to Cambridge Analytica higher-up to whistleblower and eventual witness for the Mueller investigation.
We're also introduced to Cambridge Analytica – co-founded by Steve Bannon – through a campaign they ran in Trinidad and Tobago to discourage young people from voting. And their actions, of course, would get much more nefarious from there.
The Great Hack was directed by Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, creators of an outstanding series of docs over the years about life and technology. Startup.com, their 2001 look at the rise and fall of a tech company in the first Internet bubble, was one of the better docs of its particular decade, while 2004's Control Room showed Al-Jazeera's coverage during the opening days of the Iraq War.
They also made the Oscar-nominated 2013 The Square, about the coup in Egypt, and are at work on an HBO series about the NXIVM cult.
For The Great Hack, the filmmakers had close access and took great advantage of it. It's not often that we see someone reacting in real-time to someone else appearing to lie about them to Congress, but in this film that happens twice.
Final review: 3-out-of-4 stars.