Poker is America, America is poker and, according to the docu-cum-promotional advertisement “All In: The Poker Movie,” there’s a slippery slope leading from the regulation of online gambling to godless tyranny and a full-blown totalitarian state. Loaded with history, interviews, hole-cam drama and some rather grand digressions, Douglas Tirola’s pic seems a bit late for the poker craze, and at any rate will be preaching largely to the converted, primarily on cable, following a limited theatrical run.
The action, so to speak, starts with a number of the film’s recurring interviewees — ranging from actor/poker enthusiast Matt Damon to weathered wunderkind Chris Moneymaker — making reference to some cataclysmic event in ways that suggest a combination of Pearl Harbor, 9/11 and the Kennedy assassination. What they’re alluding to is the so-called “Black Friday” of April 15, 2011, when the federal government lowered the boom on Internet poker, shutting down non-casino-related sites. It’s an event discussed throughout the movie, and more or less casts “All In” as a PSA for online gambling; the docu even has its own pro-poker lobbyist, former senator Alfonse D’Amato, now in the employ of the advocacy group Poker Players Alliance.
When someone compares online poker players with day traders, he has a point, as do the people who note that, while Goldman Sachs walked away from the financial crisis, Internet poker was receiving the full attention of the U.S. Justice Dept. At the same time, Tirola allows his subjects to advocate a bit too strenuously, at least for auds expecting a movie about the state of the game.
It’s a game with a considerable history, and without quite making the connections, the film shows how poker has been affected by massive social changes over time. The arrival of mass production and printing, for instance, changed card-gaming from a pastime of the privileged to one embraced by everyone. During World War II, the docu observes, decks of cards were distributed to soldiers, who killed time between battles getting addicted to poker, which they then pursued postwar. Television was a huge influence, too. But nothing seems to have made poker more of a problematic mass entertainment than the virtual casino of the Internet.
Like many docs about non-mainstream subjects, “All In” spends an inordinate amount of time justifying its existence. Virtually every interviewee waxes philosophic about the spirit of the game and the spirit of America, the dream of winning the World Series of Poker and the American Dream. Perhaps the most cogent comparison is between poker and capitalism: All you need to play, someone observes, is capital.
The film, which takes a massive detour to the movie “Rounders” (starring Damon) and spends an imbalanced amount of time with some of the principal figures in poker’s evolution, simply goes on too long and too windily for anyone but hardcore players. Tirola also seems to have missed an obvious opportunity for narrative coherence: Self-described inveterate gambler Moneymaker, who came out of nowhere to win the 2003 World Series of Poker, is dealt with at length, but his underdog story might also have provided the arc the entire docu needed to get all this unwieldy material into a more palatable form. Of course, this might have brought the film into the realm of cautionary tale; plenty of people have gone belly up playing poker, and the fact that “All In” pays so little attention to its ex-champions belies a game that takes at least as much as it gives.
Production values are generally good, but some of the archival footage looks as if it were run through the washing machine.