…but 15 years ago it would’ve been.
First off, GWTDT (sorry, I just can’t keep typing the whole title) is an exceptionally crafted thriller and mystery that weaves in thoughtful characterizations and startling glimpses of grotesque horror and awkward sexuality. If you can’t tell from all that, I really liked it. However, I was reflecting this afternoon that the technology used for the digital research that was portrayed throughout, and which was a major motivator of the plot, wasn’t the focus of the story. In fact, the titular character’s skills with the computer were, within the context of the story, almost prosaic despite her clear virtuosity.
This stands in stark contrast to several high-tech thrillers I’ve seen in recent years wherein any portrayal of competent computer use continues to be some kind of hyper-realized graphics and animation extravaganza, with characters pulling off ridiculous hijinks with the wave of a mouse and a few taps of the keyboard. Furthermore, “hackers” and computer experts are usually shown having superhuman analytical skills, with individual characters finding hidden codes and patterns that rooms full of Pentagon or government analysts and IT types have somehow missed. Also, the hands-on computer whizzes are typically guys.
Not so in GWTDT. I’m no command-line jockey, but I’ve had just enough experience with terminals, Unix, c-shell, and perl over the years for the computer usage montages and onscreen closeups to ring true. Even the hacking of someone’s computer remotely that constituted a significant plot point indicated nothing more esoteric then someone logging in remotely using VNC (or Screen Sharing in the parlance of Mac OS X, which all the characters were using). Sure, some clever off-screen social engineering was probably required to get the password, but that’s not implausible.
Furthermore, it’s incredibly gratifying to see the portrayal of a serious-minded young woman with intense computer and analytical skills shown in a truly modern context. She’s not a nerd, she’s not a ditz, and her mastery of technology isn’t even what distinguishes her individuality—she’s a seriously-styled goth keeping the world at arms length. Computers are what allow her to do her work, and she’s good at what she does. What makes this even more effective is the direct analogy drawn between her and the other main character, a newspaper reporter with a slightly different skillset who does exactly the same thing—deep research—sometimes using computers. In this context, the tatooed heroine’s use of technology is not shown as an obsession or lifestyle, simply a skill used to advance her other activities.
I could also rave about the rest of her portrayal, and go on and on about other absolutely terrific facets of the movie (great script, performances, and direction throughout). Sticking to the point, however, it’s simply good to see technology portrayed not gaudily, but realistically, and to see it used as a tool that helps to drive the narrative forward, and not as the point of the story. Networked technology has finally been around long enough to not seem so unusual to the average consumer, it’s high time that the movies finally caught up.