Hollywood gets hacking wrong; nobody is surprised at it anymore.
The movie industry figured out quickly that realistic depictions of computer hacking, like any hard science, is boring to watch, so they spiced it up. Now we have Matrix-style green Unicode rain scrolling down the screen and CSI techs babbling about making a GUI interface with Visual Basic to track the killer’s IP address. Doubtless from a “Sam’s Teach Yourself…” guide.
When it came to trying to find realistic hacking in movies, we had to give up. It’s not that we don’t have any writers who understand technology; it’s that audiences just won’t sit still watching anything more involving than a flash of copy-pasted code on a screen to say “computer things are happening here.”
So this list is instead the top five movies which capture the spirit of hacking, in the truest possible Jargon-file definition.
As you’ll see, the movies that do this best sometimes don’t even touch a computer.
This 1992 classic makes the top of the list mostly for being a hysterically fun flick with an all-star cast. A team of rag-tag misfit security consultants gets mixed up with an international intrigue over a master-decryption rig. The trailer makes it seem a lot more action-packed than it really is; it’s actually more of a cozy cyber-mystery. There’s a clever puzzle to unravel in every other scene, while we watch some extremely clever people play a global game of cat and mouse. It’s funny, witty, and far under-appreciated today.
It’s also eerily prescient: There really are teams of security experts who stage mock-penetration attempts to find holes in systems; the Jargon file calls them “Tiger Teams,” but we know them today as simply “white-hat security consultants.” This was one of the first movies to look ahead to our modern-day concerns over the NSA and encryption years before we had Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. Ben Kingsley’s line saying modern warfare being about who controls the information rather than the bombs rings true today. Indeed, the recent news story about the FBI trying to strong-arm Apple into supplying them with a backdoor to bypass iPhone encryption just goes to show how valuable the “black box” of this story would be.
2. Catch Me If You Can
Here in this 2002 Academy Award nominator, we see a movie which captures the hacker ethos on so many levels without ever once showing a computer. It’s even set in a time before computers were commonplace. It’s a fairly faithful biopic of the real-life con artist Frank Abagnale, and how he was caught. Mr. Abagnale, today working as a security consultant and lecturer for the FBI as well as heading a financial fraud consultancy firm, oversaw the film’s production.
It’s also chock-full of hacker tropes, which just goes to show that you don’t have to use a computer to find holes in the system. Frank Abagnale starts out exploiting holes in the international banking system to kite bad checks; he graduates to posing as a number of professional characters mostly by lying to everybody he meets. He’s repeatedly cornered and caught by his FBI pursuer, but keeps getting away. Meanwhile Tom Hanks as the FBI investigator hot on his tail shows us that catching a con artists involves just as much psychology as technology. We get to see the brilliant deductions that tell him that his target is a kid from New York based on his choices of fake names and his wisecracks about the Yankees baseball team. Ask any banker – the stuff about MICR and Federal Reserve float periods is very accurate, although modern day systems have since plugged some of these holes. As for Abagnale’s adventures, most security experts – of either color hat – will tell you that the biggest vulnerability in any system is still to find a young, gullible intern who will believe any lie.
3. The Conversation
This 1974 Francis Ford Coppola flick is probably the pick that everyone least expected. There are two people in the world who agree that this is a science fiction movie (at least by 1974 standards): one of them is author Harlen Ellison and the other is your humble blogger.
Gene Hackman plays a security consultant – a “bugger” as he is described – who snoops on a conversation. As he screens the resulting tape, filtering out background noise to tease out the words, he uncovers a government conspiracy with deadly consequences. His character is obsessed with technology details and his work, but maintains a huge blind spot when it comes to dealing with people.
There it is right in the trailer: “a world where nothing is private.” Well, hello again, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden! What were you doing back in 1974? While once again we have a hacker movie without computers, there is no shortage of techno-babble in this movie. Sound engineering and phone “phreaking” technology are thoroughly explored. We even see a collection of “spooks,” as the parlance of the times would call them, attending a convention where they explain some of the cutting-edge spying technology of the era. The Watergate scandal was still unfolding in the newspapers at this time; this movie was practically ripped from the headlines even before Richard Nixon resigned. While computers were yet on the horizon, technology was already a growing source of paranoia about the ways privacy could be invaded. You need only imagine gene Hackman’s character as a computer forensics engineer in the modern-day NSA, and it would all ring true today almost without changing any other details.
This was director Darren Aronofsky’s 1998 debut indie film, and it’s a mind-blower today. So far it is the single entry in the category of “mathematical thrillers.” The movie tells the story of “Max,” a mathematician obsessed with penetrating the mysteries of nature using mathematical patterns. Max is also in far less than peak psychological health, and his quest takes him to the brink of madness and beyond. No end of protagonists are out to invade Max’s privacy and exploit his findings for their own gain. The movie is a treat for its techno-pop soundtrack, acidic high-contrast photography, and psychedelic scenes. (NOTE: We know, there’s a mathematical error in the script. Yes, you couldn’t have time since the beginning of the universe to intone every 216-digit number. Max was bluffing there.)
It’s also a movie about the true hacker spirit because it’s a big valentine to all the hacker preoccupations. Max lives in a hacker den; he’s all but merged with the giant system of computers which takes over every square inch of his apartment. The movie is pure love of math through and through; if you mean “STEM career intellectual” when you say “hacker,” look for a copy of Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid on the hacker’s bookshelf. Max’s character is practically cut and pasted from the Jargon file’s appendix on hacker personalities: paranoid, insecure, antisocial, disdainful of modern society, and living only to understand the secrets of the world. If you’re a computer expert and you can’t empathize with the sickening but obsessive fascination Max feels when he’s penetrating the boundaries of science, you’re probably in the wrong line of work.
We just can’t leave this 1983 classic off the list, even though it’s about as realistic as The Matrix when it comes to hacking depictions. Matthew Broderick and a pre-brat-pack Ally Sheedy start out with the old “hack into the school computer to change your grade” routine – already a tired joke in 1983 – and end up jacked into the national defense system, where they almost start WWIII while playing a video game. In retrospect, they should have picked “checkers” from the game menu instead. The rest of the film is, as reviewer Leonard Maltin put it, “Fail Safe for the Pac-Man Generation,” as the whole US government scrambles to stop a buggy AI from launching global nuclear war. And sound effects straight out of a Galaga arcade machine.
“This computer is totally secure… or is it?” While this movie might be justified only as the scapegoat for bad Hollywood hacking cliches, it gets onto the list for being the great grand-daddy of all bad Hollywood hacking cliches ever since. Watch this movie again, and you’ll see that Hollywood never moved a step past 1983 when it came to computer hacking. Nevertheless, it is culturally significant for capturing the spirit of the times; this movie forms a bridge between the Cold War world and the modern day. It came about right at the dawn of the home computer age. By 1984, modems were selling off the shelf at the Radio Shack at the mall and Americans began getting Compuserve accounts. No less than then-president Ronald Reagan saw the movie and was inspired by it to enact new cyber-security laws; it would be he, with his plea to Soviet leader Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” which would end the Cold War era and plunge us into the international scene we have today, where it’s all about the cyberpunk terrorists.
Why is it so hard for the film industry to understand the computer industry? We’ll grant that it’s more entertaining to watch CGI battleships whizzing around than it is to see a CISCO tech pop open a Blade server and start shuffling circuit boards around. But still, even where getting the simplest detail right wouldn’t detract from the entertainment value, film writers just seem to insert gratuitous errors out of pure laziness and even a little spite. It seems to be the case that the hacker, like the cowboy and the caveman, is doomed to be a stereotype cut-out figure when it comes to the media. Culture falls in love with the romanticized illusion while caring nothing for the realistic substance.
Break time’s over, everybody get back to your Visual Basic GUIs! The weather forecast for tonight is cyberpunk with a chance of raining green Unicode characters.
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