For much of the 20th century, being a radical meant being left-wing. Starting in the ’80s, with the rise of the loaded-for-bear Christian right and then the 1994 Republican Revolution, being a radical started to mean being right-wing. Whoever’s out of fashion, in the minority, on the fringe is, by definition, radical. But that leaves out how sports, hip-hop, the consumer culture, and the Internet have all left their mark on radicalism. To be radical today isn’t merely to be left-wing or right-wing. Listening to the ultimate underground rap is radical. Getting the right tattoo is radical. Silicon Valley is radical. Anthony Bourdain is radical. Our solipsistic billionaire president is radical. Ryan Seacrest is radical. (Okay, Ryan Seacrest is not radical. I just wanted to see if you were paying attention. But at some point he probably will be.) And the shrewd and, in many ways, reprehensible outlaw/guru weasels at the center of the intriguing, enraging documentary “The New Radical” are radical. Please, God save us from any more radicals.
The movie, which is very smartly directed by Adam Bhala Lough (“The Carter”), focuses on a pair of too-cool-for-school young men who have become self-styled generational icons of radical chic — though you could argue that spinning who they are into something larger is built into what this generation has been taught to do. Cody Wilson, born in 1988 in Little Rock, Arkansas, is the dude who invented the printable gun: that is, the gun you can download on a computer and print out, in waxy-looking white plastic, using a 3D printer. Amir Taaki, a British Iranian programmer, played a leading role in the rise of bitcoin, the digital currency that people like himself view as a threat to governments everywhere. Since then, he has put his skills to more scurrilous (excuse me, revolutionary) ends.
Lough follows both these guys, filming them as they spout their talky manifestos, watching them become friends and colleagues, yet all the while maintaining his distance. The great strength of “The New Radical” is that it’s not on its subjects’ side (or totally against them either). It’s the rare documentary that lets you decide.
Right after he created his printable gun (a mind-bogglingly ingenious invention), the government shut Cody Wilson down, but that hasn’t kept him from fighting back. He fancies himself a crypto-anarchist on the front lines of expression, and if that sounds a bit much, Wilson is quite literal about it: He believes that anyone has the right to print out a gun, that it’s a cut-and-dried First Amendment issue. At one point, a defender of his compares the situation to printing out a recipe for chocolate-chip cookies: If you restricted that, she says, it would be an obvious violation of freedom of speech. Therefore, the printable gun is a free-speech issue too.
If you have a problem with that logic (full disclosure: I have a major problem with it), you’ll probably be infuriated by Cody Wilson, who takes a page from the likes of Sean Fanning and Julian Assange, mixes it with a hipster version of Second Amendment fervor, and presents himself as a new paradigm of freedom fighter. Wilson has a compelling presence — he looks like a brainy, thick-featured Justin Timberlake — and he speaks in incendiary academic syllogisms that are provocative and articulate enough to leave you breathless. He’s very much a product of the moment in his view that all governments and corporations are lying, corrupt oppressors that need to be destroyed. Listening to some of his arguments against them, you may be tempted to agree, until you start to think: And you’re going to replace these with…? Wilson doesn’t care about the answer; he thinks that being the poster boy for tearing things down is enough of an answer. Which is why he’s the most off-putting kind of radical: the intelligent but reckless kind. Basically, he’s a gun salesman with a position paper — a high-minded huckster.
Amir Taaki, the film’s other subject, was once on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list, but what made him a radical was his co-founding, along with Wilson, of Darkwallet, a peer-to-peer marketplace that, like the infamous on-line black market Silk Road, was used for illegal purposes but held up as a new model of free exchange that The Man didn’t want you to have. Taaki, like Wilson, is a charismatic spieler. He makes Bitcoin sound like the most liberating invention since the printing press (never mind that the real future of digital currency will likely reside with governments, who can use it to track the activities of citizens even more than they do now). And though Darkwallet advertised itself as a site that could be used for money laundering, Taaki’s reaction to that is something like: It’s on-line, it’s outside the establishment — so what right does anyone have to object? Taaki has a cuddly demeanor, but his “philosophy” boils down to a new-world defense of criminality.
It’s telling that the title of “The New Radical” isn’t plural, that it wasn’t called “The New Radicals.” That’s what a more conventional and less daring filmmaker would have called it. But Adam Bhala Lough has a perception, one that he’s captured in this fascinating movie: that the new radical isn’t a person, or even an idea — it’s a spirit, one that merges adolescent rebellion, on-line amorality, cool anarchy, and a fusion of right-wing and left-wing rage that’s a quintessential embodiment of the Trump era. Oh, it also includes one further element: the compulsion of the radical to glorify himself. Like I said: pure Trump.