Reviewed at the 2012 South by Southwest Film Festival
Brian Knappenberger's We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists is a rousing, informative, exciting documentary. It is also soft, selective, and almost completely one-sided. Because this particular audience member (like, presumably, most of those who saw it at this year's South by Southwest festival) is sympathetic to and often in agreement with "Anonymous," the hacker army upon which Knappenberger focuses, its borderline advocacy of the group is somewhat understandable--and I'm certainly no purist when it comes to documentary objectivity. But a bit more acknowledgment of the movement's flaws could have made this a much stronger picture.
It starts with a personal story, of Mercedes Haefer, one of the so-called "Anonymous 16." She was pulled from her home early one morning in fall of 2011, as part of the FBI's round-up of the hackers who took down PayPal and other sites earlier that year. She's twenty years old (she looks like your babysitter) and proudly defiant. "They weren't expecting... this," she says, of the "Anonymous" movement. The opinions of those in power didn't matter, she explains, "because someone on the Internet was kicking ass."
From there, Knappenberger looks back, to the early days of personal computing and the origination of hacking back at MIT. He then zips ahead, tracing the collective's roots back to the Wild Wild West of 4chan, and in the process of explaining that site's place in the proliferation of Internet memes and ideas, the film ends up presenting a sort of wonderful snapshot of what the Internet is right now--how it got there, and what it's becoming.
The first real target as a movement was Hal Turner, a neo-Nazi Internet radio host who was hacked by the group; in his private files, they discovered he was a paid FBI informant. But the first real battle was with Scientology--a battle that began, surprisingly enough, with that ridiculous leaked internal video of Tom Cruise waxing insane about the power of the church. Anonymous wasn't responsible for that leak--but when they found out that the Church of Scientology was getting it pulled from any website that posted it, well, that was too much. For "this creepy cult," as one says, "to come in here and tell us we can't post this? Fuck them!"
The group's subsequent triumphs--a giant protest at Scientology churches across the world, an operation taking down Australian government websites for attempting to block the Internet, a targeting of the MPAA, their participation in the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt--are run down in detail, along with their most high-profile operations, in support of WikiLeaks, seen as "an extension of the hacker ethos: the truth wants to be free, and we want to release it." When PayPal, Mastercard, and Visa cut off the donation apparatuses that funded WikiLeaks, Anonymous struck back by shutting down those websites for days on end.
The film details the intriguing logistics of these operations: the use of the "Low Orbit Ion Canon," the "D-DOSing" process, the simple tricks to overwhelm servers and take sites offline. And the film is masterfully assembled, fast paced with hard-edged musical accompaniment, cutting together several set pieces (the simultaneous Scientology protests, the closing montage that draws the clear line from Anonymous to the Occupy movement) with skill and precision.
But the picture too clearly positions itself directly in the movement's corner. The one time a target is interviewed (Aaron Barr, the onetime CEO of private security firm HB Gary) it's a giant win for the movie and the movement, since he is monumentally, astonishingly full of shit. But there's no comment for the film from the Scientology folks, or even an acknowledgment that they were contacted for comment; ditto anyone at PayPal, MasterCard, Sony, or PBS. And while the "collateral damage" of some of the operations are acknowledged (like all of that leaked personal information of Sony PlayStation users), the filmmakers seem anxious to hurry past that stuff.
We Are Legion is an impassioned film--its energy is electrifying, and if its rousing closing is not a direct call to action, it is at the very least an endorsement. But there are some fascinating contradictions to this movement, and a more thoughtful documentary might have given those a bit more consideration.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.