It’s cinematic ancient history now, but “Medium Cool” was a docudrama that caused quite a stir in its day. Haskell Wexler, a cameraman, took us inside the protests, riots and media circus that was the 1968 Democratic National Convention to tell a story of a reporter caught up in that maelstrom. In essence, he embedded an actor (Robert Forster) in a real news event and telling a fictional story that reflected and dissected what we’d seen on our TV screens during that turbulent time.
That’s what Miguel Silveira was going for in “American Thief.” Hackers and conspiracy buffs collide in the run up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, people manipulated into taking actions that destroy the public trust and roil internecine discontent, and thus might help some foreign entity rattle America and reduce our status in the world.
As if that could ever happen.
It’s a cryptic, gloomy and paranoid thriller about hackers, election interference, the omnipotent personal data mining resource of the Internet, how it is used against us by marketers and how foreign operators can use that same data to turn us on each other.
Ben Becher plays a seriously paranoid conspiracy “nut” living in a van, vlogging his “Man in a Van” Jeremiads onto the World Wide Web. He’s something of a mad prophet of the digital era, video lecturing his followers with Deep Truths about Big Data.
“What we buy, what we do, where we go when we do it, who we do it with, ALL of that information is being saved and stored in a building like that” he inveighs, pointing his camera at a generic Manhattan high rise. “The marketing algorithms are just the tip of the iceberg.”
The big question of our age is “What is going on?” Even Hunter doesn’t know that. He’s just asking the questions, dropping onto and off of the grid in his quest.
Toncruz, Diop and Meeks are young hackers seeking their own truths. The youngest of them, Toncruz (screen newcomer Xisko Maximo Monroe), is adept at breaking into servers or individual computers, pranking random people who “think they’re safe” by luring them into clicking on that one link that allows him to harvest their password, so he can steal their intimate photos or whatever and scare the hell out of them.
His fellow hacker Meeks (Julia Morrison) watches and learns, his nerdy pal Diop (Khadim Diop) eggs him on in Toncruz’s more cautionary-than-predatory version of the “Fappening.”
They’re tuned in and wired, and politically aware enough at 20 (or so) to attend rallies, speeches and organizing meetings for various causes in the days leading up to the election.
“No one LISTENS,” they complain to each other after another attempt at warning the masses about what “the government” has on you. They want to take action, but for different reasons. Toncruz is all about payback.
“It can’t be about revenge,” Diop counsels,” It has to be about JUSTICE.”
But Toncruz is also using his hacking for something more personal. He breaks into the NYPD system to track down a policeman acquitted of shooting a black man during a routine “stop and frisk.” The man was Toncruz’s father, and the old video archived on the case shows he was there as his dad was killed trying to shield him from a trigger happy cop.
These are smart people tapping into “the great question of our time” from different angles. And that makes them online risk takers. All of them start getting mysterious messages, mid-hack. Somebody has “made” them. What does that someone want? And how does it figure into Toncruz’s past, America’s election and our enemies in the world?
Brazilian born, this isn’t director Silvera’s first docudrama. His “Carnaval Blues” told a fictional story within the whirl of Brazil’s famous festival/bacchannal. Here, he weaves street and park (public speech) footage of his actors mixing in with the witnesses to the historic 2016 presidential election with archival news footage, and the odd deep dive into the Internet for old Black Panther speeches from the early ’70s, into his narrative.
The conspiracy here is more far-fetched than fascinating. And the film’s brief running time means we don’t follow the characters deeply into any story thread. The film plays like a long prospectus for a story that will be considerably more involved and engrossing, and probably 30 minutes longer when it’s fully fleshed out.
I like the technique and the idea of the story being told more than I like the story itself, in this case.
“American Thief” has disillusioned Bernie Sanders fans fuming about their ballot choices, dismayed Clinton and one could argue democracy fans not able to hide their shocked faces on Times Square, tearfully passionate activists beginning the process of resisting and a fictional story that ties to Stuxnet blowback.
Sure. Why not? There’s just not quite enough here to make all of that a film as coherent and dramatically satisfying as it is disquieting.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence
Cast: Xisko Maximo Monroe, Khadim Diop, Ben Becher, Julia Morrison, Josefina Scaro
Credits: Directed by Miguel Silveira, script by Miguel Silveira, Michel Stolnicki. A Film Movement+ release.
Running time: 1:18