Stream It Or Skip It: ‘The Perfect Weapon’ On HBO, A Documentary About The Rise Of Cyber Attacks

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For most of history, warfare has been conducted on the ground, in the air, and by sea. Over the last decade and change, however, the fight has moved behind screens. Cyber spying and warfare is now considered one of the top threats the United States faces today. HBO’s The Perfect Weapon examines how we got here, where things might be going, and the implications of a few key events in the recent history of hacking and beyond. 

The Gist: Based on the best-selling book The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage, and Fear In The Cyber Age, by New York Times national security correspondent David E. Sanger, John Maggio’s documentary The Perfect Weapon tells the story of cyber warfare and spying and the way it has rapidly advanced over the last few years. We begin with a montage of news clips and interview segments that can only be described as chilling; the reality of just what kind of damage cyber attacks can do cannot be understated. Beginning in 2007 with the Bush administration and taking us to where we stand now with our current election and COVID-19, The Perfect Weapon examines the many facets of cyber attacks and how they have affected us thus far.

Long before the Russians hacked the Democratic National Committee’s system (though the documentary gets to that a little later on), the United States decided to meddle with Iran’s nuclear weapons projects right under their noses. As Bush left office and President Obama began his first term, he was urged to keep the drone program and this Iran program alive. Eventually, the code got out, and the whole world discovered what we’d been up to. This only made it fair game for everyone else to start doing the same, and as a result of one big-mouthed rich person’s dumb comments (Sheldon Adelson), the Las Vegas Sands Corp casinos were hacked by Iran, costing them some $40 million.

Following this introduction to just how destructive these kinds of attacks can be, The Perfect Weapon spends much of its runtime on a few central events: the Sony Pictures hack as a result of North Korea’s position against The Interview, the DNC hack, 2016 election meddling and Facebook ads, the anxiety surrounding the current election, and the impact of the spreading of misinformation surrounding COVID-19 (among other topics wedged in between).

What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: The Perfect Weapon very much feels like many of various top-notch documentaries on HBO, like Agents of Chaos, and Citizenfour, as well as Netflix docuseries like Dirty Money.

Performance Worth Watching: Not to shower praise on the film’s only real actor by default, but Seth Rogen definitely provides some of the film’s more interesting and personal interviews. It’s rare to see him get serious and insightful about subject matter of this nature, especially in this context. (And yeah, that laugh is still infectious as hell.)

Memorable Dialogue: It would be easy for Americans in the documentary to clutch their pearls about the ways we’ve been digitally attacked by outside forces, but early on, one quote lays it all out: “The United States had basically legitimized the use of cyber as a weapon against another country against whom you had not declared war. It pushed the world into an entirely new territory.” We set the precedent. And we opened the door for other countries to do the same to us.

Sex and Skin: None here.

Our Take: I would watch an entire series based on the events described in The Perfect Weapon. It feels like there’s a lot of background here that doesn’t get explored for sake of keeping a lean runtime, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it’s a testament to the filmmaking that I want to see more. The group of interviewees, including the author of the book on which the documentary is based, is perfectly selected, each offering unique insight regarding specific events, technology, and politics.

To be frank, I was worried this might go over my head and feel like a bit of a snooze, but it plays out like a thrilling exposé, taking us on a seamless journey from one pivotal event to the next. It’s also incredibly timely, a chilling reminder of what is happening right in front of our eyes as we scroll every single day, of how our collective future may rest in the hands of an unseen force hiding behind screens on the other side of the world. At this point, we’re constantly being bombarded with the idea that the internet and social media is toxic (The Social Dilemma), but this doc manages to drive home that idea in a terrifying way without ever feeling preachy or righteous.

The Perfect Weapon rightfully takes responsibility for the United States’ role in creating this monster, and is blunt about the fact our reliance on the internet makes us the perfect target. The choice to examine crucial events across different fields – entertainment, elections, government, businesses, social media, health, etc – is also a smart one, as it really makes clear just how wide the reach of cyber attacks really are. I really do believe it also would have worked well as a miniseries. With an episode dedicated to each big event, they really could have dug deep into the consequences and responses to each one. But I digress. Despite its lean runtime, The Perfect Weapon does not feel rushed; it’s a coherent, sharp piece of filmmaking, a relevant and necessary examination of the state of our world and the way things are changing every minute.

Our Call: STREAM IT. It’s a fascinating, well-made documentary, paced in such a way that makes it feel like a high-stakes narrative thriller. With input from politicians, government employees, celebrities, and a bevy of experts across many different fields, The Perfect Weapon paints a full – and terrifying – picture.

Jade Budowski is a freelance writer with a knack for ruining punchlines and harboring dad-aged celebrity crushes. Follow her on Twitter: @jadebudowski.

Stream The Perfect Weapon on HBO Max

Stream The Perfect Weapon on HBO Now

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