With the 2020 presidential race heating up and Mitch McConnell blocking legislation to address voting security, “The Great Hack” couldn’t come at a better time. Digging deep into the Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2018 – and the revelations of how that British consulting firm worked to manipulate the electorate on behalf of its client Donald Trump in 2016 — the documentary by Jehane Noujaim (“Control Room”) and Karim Amer sends up a warning flare that should be heeded by every voter, regardless of political persuasion. It debuted on Netflix July 24, and you might say it’s required viewing.
Seventy-one million US Facebook users had their personal data harvested by Cambridge Analytica and used to build “psychographic profiles” that were then utilized during the 2016 presidential race to blast targeted political content (often not identified as such) on social media. “Crooked Hillary”? “Lock her up”? These were their inventions.
If you took part in a downloadable personality-test app called “thisisyourdigitallife,” not only did you become part of the database — so did every one of your Facebook friends. The strategy had worked for Cambridge Analytica’s previous clients, including victorious politicians in South Africa, India, the Caribbean, and in Britain, where the company arguably claimed to have swung the Brexit vote. The aim in 2016 wasn’t to convince everyone but to sway enough “persuadable” voters in key battleground states for Trump to win.
“The Great Hack” breaks down who did it and how. The key figure is Alexander Nix, CEO of Cambridge Analytica, whose parent company, SCL Group, had pioneered behavioral research with regard to molding mass opinion in various military and political areas. Nix, tweedy and bespectacled, is eventually brought down when undercover footage of him boasting of using bribery stings and blackmail on opposing candidates went public in 2018. (Next to Nix, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg comes off as a clueless patsy.)
The filmmakers have in their corner the firm’s former COO Julian Wheatland; American academic David Carroll, who unsuccessfully sued to force Cambridge Analytica to release his personal data — the company shut down in 2018, some said to avoid further investigation; Carole Cadwalladr, a reporter for the British newspaper the Guardian, who was instrumental in breaking the story; and Brittany Kaiser, a one-time Obama intern who went to work for Nix and ultimately turned against him publicly.
This last is a complex figure, both sympathetic and foolish, and “The Great Hack” never quite sorts out its feelings about her. Kaiser admits she met with Julian Assange while working for Nix but claims they didn’t talk about the election. The filmmakers just let that ride.
No matter — the clear alarm “The Great Hack” sends is that 2016 was a warmup, and that just because Cambridge Analytica is out of the picture doesn’t mean others aren’t. The movie should be seen now so that discussions can be had now, so that awareness can spread and actions taken. There will be a quiz, and it’ll be held on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.
On a slightly less apocalyptic note, there’s the carnage that erupts in the final 15 minutes of Quentin Tarantino’s new film, “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood.” Reviews came out last month (including mine) and all of them as spoiler-free as possible (including mine), but the arguments many moviegoers are having outside theaters, in print, and on various social media center primarily on the thing we weren’t supposed to spoil. So let’s spoil it and talk about it. (Do I really need to say Spoilers Ahead? OK, Spoilers Ahead.)
The twist in the movie is that the Sharon Tate killings never happen — that the Manson family members dispatched to butcher the residents of 10050 Cielo Drive end up instead at the house next door, where an LSD-addled stuntman played by Brad Pitt turns the tables and kills the killers in gleefully graphic ways. (With some assistance from a trained pitbull named Brandy and Leonardo DiCaprio with a flamethrower.)
“Once Upon a Time. . .” has been fairly decorous up to this point, with its fond evocation of 1969 Hollywood underscored by our dread of the factual horrors we know are coming. The switch-up allows Tarantino to both exercise his genius for cinematic bloodlust and to take imagined revenge — his and ours — for a crime that changed the film industry and American pop culture. The gates that swing open at the end and bring DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton into the neighborly embrace of a still-living Sharon Tate, her fate averted through the magic of movies, is both wistfully moving and terribly sad – a glimpse of what might have been.
But does he have to polish off Charlie’s kids so . . . gruesomely? When Patricia “Katie” Krenwinkel (Madisen Beaty) has her head bashed in with the prongs of a wall telephone or Susan “Sadie” Atkins (Mikey Madison) is burned alive in the pool, some audiences hoot in vigilante zeal but others may wince and cry uncle at the relentless brutality.
The ensuing conversation has conflicts built right into it. Is this just an excuse for the “Kill Bill” bad boy to pander to his and our worst impulses and to visit ultraviolence on women again? Or, wait, are you actually feeling sorry for the people who stabbed to death a pregnant woman and her houseguests while the victims begged for their lives?
“Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood” is made up of such morally hazy balancing acts that reflect as much upon the people watching the movie as on the man who made it. There’s a healthy argument currently unfolding over whether the film’s portrayal of Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) as a pompous grandstanding star is accurate, fair, fictional, or just a little bit racist. (Lee’s daughter, for one, is steamed.)
And whether you think Pitt’s character, Cliff Booth, meant to kill his wife (Rebecca Gayheart) may say more about you; when we see the scene in flashback, Tarantino leaves it perfectly ambiguous as to whether her death was accidental or intentional. That not-knowing gives Cliff an aura of suspense (he’s the Schrödinger’s cat of wife-murderers: He did it and he didn’t do it) that keeps us on his side while allowing us to believe he could pick off a crew of Mansonites in cold blood even while tripping his brains out.
The violence in the final scenes of “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood” puts the audience in an uncomfortable position between horror and complicity. It’s meant to. But if the over-the-top cartoonishness of the bloodletting is intended as a cathartic release, it also kicks some viewers, myself included, right out of the movie. The joy Tarantino takes in torturing the torturers — the use of his beloved cinema to set right what went wrong in real life — plays on some level as disrespect to the memories of those who really did die. Even the all-forgiving benediction of the very last scene, as moving as it is, can’t wash the bitter taste away.
Tarantino would doubtless disagree. So might you. That we’re arguing about it, I’d argue, is the sign of a movie and a moviemaker still daring to take chances.