Photo via the 'Hacker Wars' Facebook page
The surveillance state and those who fight against it have become a bona fide hot topic in the last two years, during which Wikileaks's Julian Assange was examined in We Steal Secrets, Edward Snowden's NSA disclosures found a cinematic home in Laura Poitra's uneven Citizenfour, and the history of "hacktivism" and Anonymous was traced in Brian Knappenberger's We Are Legion.
With Vivien Lesnik Weisman's Hacker Wars, we're given a look at a collection of hackers and trolls who have been persecuted in various ways by the US government. Weisman is unquestionably loyal to her film's subjects, and it shows, to the point where you might describe Hacker Wars as a little more than a valentine to those subjects who gave her access.
From start to finish, the film largely elicits the opinions and impressions of a small, tight-knit group of agitators including Joe “subverzo” Fionda and Jaime “asshurtmacfags” Cochran. These and other subjects color the events surrounding the trials and convictions of infamous internet troll Weev (real name Andrew Auerheimer), Anonymous spokesperson and Project PM head Barrett Brown (who has written for VICE), and Jeremy Hammond (a.k.a. Anarchaos), the hacktivist who leaked a treasure trove of data from Stratfor, an American intelligence firm.
Their observations, along with the film's bro-step soundtrack, probably won't counter the perception that activist hackers tend to be puckish pranksters with an anti-authority complex rather than serious people using hacking to achieve noble political ends. Weisman's pile-driving approach to the film's soundtrack and editing, with its quick cuts and graphics, leaves little room for nuanced thoughts on state and corporate power.
That's not to say the the film isn't occasionally informative, funny, and even terrifying. When footage is shown of the raid on Brown (Anonymous's de facto spokesperson), with feds aggressively shouting amid a total blackout, it highlights how reactionary and fearful the American state can be. But, in lingering too long on Brown's persona, Weisman doesn't give enough time to his attempt—with Project PM—to bring transparency to the US intelligence contracting industry.
Weisman also errs in giving too much screen time to Weev, who speaks intelligently about hacktivism in some scenes, but his main function—as far as I can tell—is to celebrate the troll's role in internet culture. That leaves Jeremy Hammond as the one true hacktivist out of the film's central characters.
The film presents Hammond's hack of Stratfor, which led to him getting ten years in prison, as an act of political disobedience against the surveillance state. It fails to address the flaws in the operation that led to his arrest, however—which as everyone who has been even casually following the story knows went tits up as a result of the FBI flipping hacktivist Hector Xavier Monsegur, a.k.a. Sabu, who fed Hammond a flaw in Stratfor's security that enabled him to get in.
Weisman has nothing to say about Hammond diving headlong into trouble without knowing if Sabu had been flipped, even though the hacker Virus had accused Sabu of being a stool pigeon back in August 2011. Hammond also gets a free pass for his decision to leak data from 60,000 Stratfor customer credit cards, resulting in $700,000 in fraudulent donations to nonprofits. There, and in other places, the film seems overly reluctant to criticize its subjects.
Still, Hacker Wars has its moments of illumination, however fleeting they may be. Thomas Drake, who blew the whistle on NSA's internet and phone data collection program Stellar Wind, and Daily Dot reporter Dell Cameron (who has written for VICE and Motherboard) both speak intelligently about hacktivism being a legitimate counter to state power. The two get significant screen time, but both play second fiddle to Weev's trollish persona.
Does Hacker Wars want to add to the debate over hacktivism's role in checking state and corporate power? Or does it just want to be a love letter to its characters? Either way, when the closing credits roll atop the bro-step beats, the audience will likely be left wondering about the hacktivists who don't appear in films and are even now trying to dig up corporate secrets while trying to avoid being caught. Hacker Wars has nothing to say about them.