As the trauma of the 2016 presidential election gave way to self reflection, Cambridge Analytica epitomized a unique form of 21st-century villainy. The British technology firm’s covert use of Facebook user data to map voter behavior boosted the Trump campaign and Brexit alike by sowing disinformation, and it only faced comeuppance once a few employees decided to speak out. Co-founded by Steve Bannon, and tied to broader concerns about Facebook’s loose privacy standards, the company’s impact says much about the divisiveness of the last two years.
Cambridge Analytica’s exploitative online behavior became public in piecemeal, culminating with the company’s decision to close in early 2018. As a result, the full scope of its impact has been elusive. Netflix production “The Great Hack,” a sprawling 137-minute documentary from the directors of “Startup.com” and “Control Room,” goes to great lengths to resolve that. Billed as a work-in-progress at Sundance, it runs far too long and struggles to find a natural endpoint for its saga, juggling reams of dense information. Yet directors Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer have assembled an engaging overview that positions the company’s rise and fall at the center of an information technology market changing too fast for anyone to wholly comprehend.
Noujaim and Amer excel at capturing the complex inner workings of companies through a personal lens, and here they find their key subject in Brittany Kaiser, the young and lively former business director for Cambridge Analytica who became a whistleblower last year. Kaiser, who would make a great vehicle for Julia Stiles in the inevitable narrative adaptation, has a remarkable backstory that helps explain just how much the company managed to infiltrate both sides of the political spectrum to achieve its results. A former Obama campaign intern going back to his 2008 election, she was lured by former Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix to use her skills for more devious ends with the promise of a better paycheck. In the process, she embraced right-wing politics with the commitment of method actor.
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The movie stays close to Kaiser’s side for much of its running time, following her through an off-the-grid Thailand trip as she recounts her sad story and watching as she deals with the media fallout surrounding her decision to come forward. But it also positions Kaiser as part of a much larger epic, including Nix’s many corrupt schemes to sow disinformation about political candidates to bolster the firm’s results. Captured by Channel 4 cameras boasting about prostitution and bribery for opposition research, Nix became a face of evil as Cambridge Analytica was forced to reckon with its misdeeds in public. But “The Great Hack” positions him as one cog in a massive machine.
The documentary opens with a sweeping dystopian vision, as if setting the stage for a “Black Mirror” episode. In a dense collage of people using their phones in everyday life, the filmmakers show blurry pixels emanating from countless screens, as the impressive CGI visuals explore the emerging industry of predicting behavior through online data. A sea of voices muse on the potential challenges of this breakthrough technology. “When does it turn sour?” one person wonders, as the trillion-dollar data mining industry comes into focus. And the Cambridge Analytica story provides an answer.
Anyone with a Facebook account may wind up deleting it as the filmmakers lay out the crimes at hand, detailing the company’s eerie ability to map voter profiles for thousands of people in a single region using information from seemingly innocuous online surveys. The company got away with its scheme until American professor David Carroll sued Cambridge Analytica to access data after he was providing with only a handful of details about his profile, despite the company’s claims that it managed some 5,000 data points for each person. As Carroll explains in “The Great Hack,” his personal curiosity led to international outrage; if he didn’t make the effort, the company’s influence might never have waned in the first place.
But now, with the help of Kaiser and other former employees who have since come forward, “The Great Hack” explains the company’s rapid-fire impact, from its success in carrying Ted Cruz through the Iowa caucus to the way it yielded a new contract with the Trump campaign. At each step of the process, illustrations elucidate the dramatic speed with which Cambridge Analytica solidified its power using the loopholes hiding in plain sight. As former executive Julian Wheatland puts it: “There was always going to be a Cambridge Analytica. It just sucks to me that it was Cambridge Analytica.” It’s hard to tell if he’s regretful or just bummed they got caught.
With its epic length and many overlapping narratives, “The Great Hack” feels like a rough edit in search of an elusive final cut, as its story continues to develop. In its current form, it flies past one logical end point, when Cambridge Analytica declared bankruptcy and shut down in May 2018. Then it consumes another half hour of recent developments, from the Mueller investigation, to Nix’s public testimony, and further pontifications from Kaiser. This potential epilogue becomes an entire concluding act, and yet the story still dangles on a cliffhanger when the credits finally roll.
No matter what form it takes, “The Great Hack” exists as a giant contradiction sure to evoke strong responses from anyone impacted by its drama, which is basically everyone. As a Netflix production, it has a puzzling identity in the marketplace: Audiences for this revealing movie are poised to discover it through the very same process of hidden algorithms at the center of its alarming narrative. That’s either a bitter irony or exactly right.
“The Great Hack” premiered in the Documentary Premieres at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Netflix releases it later this year.