Monday, February 16, 2015

Sundance ’15: The 414s (short)

They did in the CBS show Whiz Kids before it even started. Developed before WarGames was released, the young computer prodigies of the sixty minute drama only used their skills to aid law enforcement. Nevertheless, the media was predisposed to be critical following the feeding frenzy ignited by a group of teen hackers who cracked the systems of Los Alamos and the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Now all grown-up and reformed, the first generation hackers look back at their brief notoriety in Michael T. Vollman’s short documentary, The 414s: the Original Teenage Hackers, which screened at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

Milwaukee’s real deal gangs took their names from the numbered streets that defined their territory, so the 414s adopted the local area code in a similar spirit. Frankly, nobody ever claimed they were malicious. They were just fooling around, trying blindly to gain access to any system that acknowledged their random calls. When their breach of the Los Alamos network was finally discovered, the FBI and the media basically freaked.

While some of the 414s who were old enough to be prosecuted had to shut up and do their best to look innocent, Neal Patrick was still under-age and more than willing to talk. In fact, he became a minor media sensation, before tiring of controversy and computers.

Even if you weren’t trying to cold call NORAD, there is a lot of nostalgia in The 414s. It will remind you there was a time a strange cat named Phil Donahue had a talk show that some people took half-seriously. The old hardware is also a blast from the past. Yet, it is also an uncomfortably timely film, arriving at Sundance in the wake of the Sony hack. You would think the Feds would have seriously stepped up there cybersecurity game since 1983, when it was literally nonexistent, but you have to wonder.

The 414s is the sort of short that seems to beg to be expanded into a feature. The participating 414s are all smart and compelling screen presences, who have interesting things to say. Clearly, their influence is still being felt, in ways that could easily be explored in greater detail. Regardless, the short that screened with the terrific Chuck Norris vs. Communism is quite informative and unexpectedly fun. It also got sold, which is something for a short film. It went to CNN Films for some kind of prospective digital platform, but it still counts. Highly recommended, The 414s should have some sort of digital life ahead of it, following its screenings at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.