9 movies that get IT (almost) right

Hollywood hackers too often fail to capture the true triumphs -- and mind-numbing drudgery -- of endless hours at the console.

9 movies that get IT (almost) right
9 movies that get IT (almost) right

If you push a real spy for a few minutes, they'll admit their life is nothing like the movies. Car chases are rare, beautiful opponents are few, and the itinerary is anything but exotic. It's mainly sitting at a desk, clicking and typing. But as Alfred Hitchcock once said, "The cinema is not a slice of life but a piece of cake."

Programmers have the same problem as spies. Their lives are a long, slow slog through a bazillion keystrokes and clicks. The end result is often very powerful, but the journey is a visual snooze. Movies, however, love to explore power, and computers play a big role in powering modern life. To film hackers without putting the audience to sleep, Hollywood bends the truth.

But every once in a while a movie comes along to get the tech right -- not completely right, perhaps not even 50 percent right, but correct enough to give the tech-inclined among us pause, especially when compared to the usual blockbusters that reduce hacking to an allegory of whirling clouds of neon fragments commanded by impossibly sentient beings.

Here are nine movies and series that kind of get the tech almost right, a little. These filmmakers should be celebrated for trying to nail down the nuances of programming and programming culture at least some of the time.

'Enemy of the State'
Credit: Buena Vista Pictures
'Enemy of the State'

A Congressman is brutally murdered for resisting the government’s efforts to expand the surveillance state, and Will Smith finds himself caught up in the conspiracy, thanks to a friend who slips him a digital copy of a video showing the crime. Along the way, Smith finds help from Gene Hackman, playing a computer genius who joins the fight.

Some might quibble that the mesh on Hackman's Gauss box may not be fine enough for today's frequencies, but he nonetheless understands what can be done with computer chips and radio circuitry. And he displays a pretty good idea of how the truth can be manipulated with the right database commands.

The malice afforded the human leadership may be a bit extreme and unrealistic -- after all, Edward Snowden is still alive -- but the potential of the technology to track and destroy is all very real. In some ways, “Enemy of the State” was ahead of the game. In one crucial scene, a boss says that rule breakers will be uncovered by tracking the serial numbers given to each illegal bug. The post-Snowden NSA is reportedly working hard to add better tracking to its systems, so it can do exactly that when someone steps out of bounds.

'Catch Me If You Can'
Credit: DreamWorks Pictures
'Catch Me If You Can'

The ‘60s sure look glamorous in this caper-and-chase movie based on the true story of Frank Abagnale. Leonardo DiCaprio tells the story of Abagnale’s early life creating fake checks, pretending to be a doctor, and sneaking past security dressed as an airplane pilot. In each case, he hacks the technology of the era with a mixture of raw skill and social engineering.

When Abagnale was caught, he switched sides to help the FBI stop fraud, which mushroomed as computers and technology made his techniques simpler and faster.

"What I did 50 years ago as a teenage boy is 4,000 times easier to do today because of technology," Abagnale said at a computer crime conference in London. "Technology breeds crime. It always has and always will."

'Disclosure'
Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
'Disclosure'

Most people know the movie as a modern corporate thriller where Michael Douglas gets caught up in a web of sexual harrassment, but if you blip over the steamy stuff, you can spend an enjoyable evening on a story that explores how hard it is to build the fancy tech gadgets we love. The movie is built around a crisis at DigiCom, a company trying to launch what was then a revolutionary product: an advanced CD-ROM drive.

The manufacturing specs are exceedingly precise, and a misplaced capacitor or resistor can produce stochastic errors that leave us pulling out our hair. I ran into problems with an iPhone 5c, a model that is known for losing Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for unexplained reasons. Is a wire a tad too short? Is a bit of corrosion at fault? Most people just upgrade to an iPhone 6 and forget about it. But the characters in "Disclosure" want to know the truth and they find it.

Finally, a movie about the true heroes of our world: those who create stable hardware.

'Antitrust'
Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
'Antitrust'

Ryan Phillippe is a young programmer who lands his dream job at a Silicon Valley startup called NURV, but once there, he discovers the evil secret behind the company's success.

There's plenty of suspense and hacking along the way, but in the end the movie turns on the kind of social shaming that YouTube has made famous. It's overturned the lives of politicians, executives, and students -- and may ultimately be the only real power that programmers have to change the world. May the power of social shaming only be used for good.

'WarGames'
Credit: MGM/UA Entertainment
'WarGames'

High school students Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy find themselves caught in a battle for the future of the world after they use a dial-up modem to call every number in Sunnyvale, Calif. One of the numbers leads them down a wormhole to a secret Defense Department supercomputer called the WOPR.

Some will point out correctly that A.I. isn't even close to reaching the level of sentience depicted in the film, but Siri and its brethren are getting pretty good at faking it.

Other details in “WarGames” ring true, like the cool IMSAI microcomputer that Broderick runs. If anything, the movie became truer after its release, in a case of life imitating art. Thinking Machines reportedly designed its supercomputers to look like the WOPR, and several stories from the Cold War expose how close we came to global thermonuclear war. That has to be worth something.

'Sneakers'
Credit: Universal Studios
'Sneakers'

Robert Redford leads a tiger team of security specialists who are asked to recover a secret black box with the ability break codes. There's some shoulder surfing and clever de-anonymization mixed in with the usual Hollywood chase scenes.

Is there such a box that holds the backdoor for the elliptic curve random number generator that creates keys for so many Web operations? Ben Kingsley plays Cosmo, an old hacker, who explains, "The world isn't run by weapons anymore, or energy, or money. It's run by little ones and zeroes, little bits of data. It's all just electrons."

'The Social Network'
Credit: Columbia Pictures
'The Social Network'

Jesse Eisenberg plays Mark Zuckerberg in this alleged retelling of the birth of Facebook. While the rough arc of the story is correct, Zuckerberg and others complained about the accuracy of some of the minor details, like his motivations, but not the bigger issues of all that PHP hacking.

I've never seen the kind of drinking and hacking events that supposedly went down at Harvard, and I can't imagine how anyone could craft a loop invariant while under the influence. As Marc Andreessen said, "Aaron Sorkin was completely unable to understand the actual psychology of Mark or of Facebook. He can't conceive of a world where social status or getting laid or, for that matter, doing drugs is not the most important thing."

But let's talk about the good things. When Eisenberg screen scrapes, he does it using wget, slipping through Apache configuration issues and hacking together scripts to slurp the data from the various databases. If you add in the Eichler-designed houses and some of the San Francisco fun, “The Social Network” is better than it could have been.

'The Internship'
Credit: 20th Century Fox
'The Internship'

When Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson discover they're about to lose their jobs as watch salesmen, they find a way to wiggle their way into a company that's growing -- in this case, Google. It may be hard to believe that Google would hire someone over 25 years old for an internship, but maybe it's trying to atone for the behavior that led to age discrimination lawsuits in the past.

The movie captures the look and spirit of the industry with the colorful office filled with toys and a brutally competitive contest for the interns that one character calls a "mental 'Hunger Games.'" Along the way, they build apps and sell ads. Isn't that what it's all about?

'Silicon Valley'
Credit: HBO
'Silicon Valley'

This ensemble piece about a Silicon Valley startup is technically a series on HBO, but in the age of binge watching, the differences between a TV show and a movie are minimal.

There are so many skewering and accurate details in the show about working in tech: from the use of Post-it notes to guide agile development, to the search for the most efficient compression algorithm, to the hype of startup conferences, and to the endless amount of time techies are glued to a screen.

It's clear that “Silicon Valley” creator Mike Judge has spent time in a cubicle farm crafting instructions for microprocessors. He was also responsible for creating "Office Space," a classic movie deserving of its own spot on this list, if only because it captured so accurately the drudgery of corporate life.