As its title indicates, “The Rise and Rise of Bitcoin” takes a decidedly optimistic view of the digital currency some call “the money of the future,” while others — little heard from here — dismiss it as a overblown hype doomed to failure. The consistent rah-rah tenor makes Nicholas Mross’ documentary less interesting than it could be, since it shies away from most tough questions to simply chase the enthusiasm demonstrated by Bitcoin supporters. That makes these 96 minutes rather like being stuck in one long meeting with the almost invariably young, white, middle-class male members of a startup: Their zeal isn’t all that infectious unless you’re already on the team. Pic opened in New York, Los Angeles and Cleveland on Oct. 3, with VOD launch on Oct. 10.
Supposedly invented by a mysterious Japanese man named Satoshi Nakamoto (whose current whereabouts are unknown), Bitcoin is a peer-to-peer monetary system in which all transaction records are public. Participants can use its open-source software to transfer virtual currency to one another as easily as they might send an email. Because it is designed to have an absolute ceiling of 21 million Bitcoins in circulation (not anticipated until 2040), and the system has no central depository or administrative authority, it has great appeal to libertarians and others who seek alternatives to a perceived corrupt, manipulative banking infrastructure and excessive government regulations. Its low processing fees compared with those of mainstream credit-card companies also hold considerable allure for merchants.
It’s still considered an “experiment,” but has fascinated the business world since 2009, when the first Bitcoins were electronically mined. While commercial transactions have lagged behind speculative activity, their value has generally risen (despite a couple crashes) over time, recently crossing the $1,000 line only to plummet down to approximately half that rate. As one observer puts it here, “If people believe it has value, it will.”
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However, as yet it exists in a netherland of legality, regarded with varying suspicion and skepticism by governments that are just beginning to weigh in regarding the monitoring and legitimacy of digital currencies. Docu briefly notes some sources of controversy, most notoriously Bitcoin’s popularity in a number of online black markets including Silk Road, which allowed users to purchase a wide range of illegal drugs before it was shut down in a U.S. bust last year. But its vulnerability to theft and lack of standard consumer protections basically go unremarked here. Nor is there any debate when Bitcoin entrepreneurs follow the path of the worst traditional financial powers, as when we see one such business moves its operations to Panama in order to escape U.S. regulatory oversight. A supporter here claims the idea is to “take control of money from the state and give it back to individuals.”
But beyond simply being new, what exactly prevents Bitcoin from being exploited for the benefit of an elite few like established financial networks? When the three main Bitcoin-wave-riding businesses followed here collapse amid bankruptcies and one arrest on money-laundering charges, the film shrugs this off as regulation dragging down innovation. A more balanced documentary might have actually asked whether these protagonists’ actions were indeed wise, or entirely above board.
Whether its subject ultimately proves a true economic game-changer or a fast-forgotten fad, either fate may make “The Rise and Rise of Bitcoin” more compelling in hindsight than it is at this still-inconclusive early point. Mross tries to personalize his overview by focusing on his brother Daniel Mross, an early Bitcoin adopter who’s seemingly bet his young family’s future on acquiring the digital currency (and has a basement full of expensive computers doing his mining.) He’s amiable enough, but these sequences aren’t very involving. At the end, his claim that “Bitcoin belongs to everyone and the future is ours to build” feels no less like blind faith than it would have at the beginning.
What’s lacking here is a wider perspective, not just on Bitcoin but on the entrenched world financial institutions that it could conceivably, at least partially displace. Though we see plenty of eyeblink newscast excerpts charting the currency’s public ups and downs, there’s exactly one economic authority heard from late in the game offering a more considered skepticism re: Bitcoin’s real-world potential. That’s hardly enough to balance the film’s scales. Nor do we glimpse much of how Bitcoin might impact ordinary citizens’ lives for the better, since the pic seldom leaves the world of financial speculators who frankly don’t seem very different from the usual Wall Street types.
Assembly is brisk, aided by some polished animation and graphics, though those not already intrigued by the subject may find the film’s aggressive hard sell somewhat tedious nonetheless.