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The Rise and Rise of Bitcoin: Tribeca Review

The Rise and Rise of Bitcoin Poster - P 2013

The Bottom Line

Wide-ranging primer is involving but leaves some details hazy.

Venue

Tribeca Film Festival, Tribeca Talks

Director

Nicholas Mross

The hot-button cryptocurrency Bitcoin is evangelized in enthusiastic doc form.

NEW YORK – Those confused about the much-discussed cryptocurrency Bitcoin -- no, it's not something you can only use to buy imaginary mansions in Second Life -- may well want to start their education with Nicholas Mross's The Rise and Rise of Bitcoin, an enthusiastic portrait that introduces the various ways super-early adopters have tried to stake claims in what they see as a vast new frontier. Though it leaves some practical details hazy and is open about being essentially one-sided (our tour guide is one of those early birds), the modest but enjoyable primer helps one understand something more than the enthusiasm of get-rich-quick speculators. It should earn attention on the fest circuit and will have some life in digital venues before the currency's quickly evolving story makes it less relevant.

Mross's techie brother Daniel narrates, explaining how he got interested very early on in the creation of a likely-pseudonymous man calling himself Satoshi Nakamoto. He soon set up computers that worked solely to "mine" Bitcoins, performing transaction computations in exchange for Bitcoin payment (the system is set up to eventually release 21 million -- unlike most digital goods, the supply is limited). Eventually his filmmaker brother got tired of hearing him rhapsodize about this new way of thinking about money and decided to turn his camera on the scene.

The pair do a halfway-good job of explaining the basics. We get the importance of the public ledger, the Blockchain, through which any user in the world has access to a record of every single Bitcoin transfer. (How large a file must that be, given recent activity?) We see how peer-to-peer communication and open-source coding make the underlying mechanism transparent. But an attentive newcomer may still not understand how one stores this in-the-cloud money, how it can be stolen or how the businesses set up to exchange Bitcoins for other currency operate.

We meet the founders of a few of those exchanges, young men who've become "Bitcoin millionaires" and seen tremendous business growth in the last year and a half. (The now-infamous Mt. Gox exchange was moving US$6 million back and forth every day, even after its first run-in with authorities.) They range from geeky idealists to slick biz-school types, and all share Dan's belief that a decentralized banking system is something that will help huge parts of the world in addition to making them rich.

Mross addresses some of the invention's utopian angles while acknowledging the dark sides inevitably raised by the press: In a discussion of the Silk Road trading forum for illegal goods, we're introduced to one drug dealer, "Mr. Bitcoin," who now works not on a street corner but at an Internet cafe equipped with the Tor anonymous web browser.

Between interviews with entrepreneurs, Libertarians who've embraced the currency in order to get off the grid and U.S. government officials tasked with assessing virtual currency's relevance to money laundering and funding terrorism, the film charts the currency's fast-rising price in U.S. dollars and watches as Dan invests plenty of money in his mining operation. Some chunks of this narrative are chronologically vague, a not-insignificant failing given how quickly things change on the Bitcoin scene. And most viewers will want a little more detail about our guide's personal experience with the currency. Having bought in so early, is he now rich? How much did he spend on all those specially-engineered servers in his basement?

Whatever its gaps, the film is admirably up-to-the-minute, including major developments that happened just weeks before the Tribeca premiere. It isn't in a position to make much sense of them yet. But in this world, those who aren't comfortable with a state of flux should probably stay home.

Director: Nicholas Mross

Screenwriters: Patrick Lope, Daniel Mross, Nicholas Mross

Producers: Ben Bledsoe, Nicholas Mross, Patrick Lope

Executive producers: Juergen Mross

Director of photography:

Editor: Patrick Lope

Music: Simon Stevens

Not Rated, 95 minutes