‘The New Radical’: Film Review | Sundance 2017

The questions it raises are significant, of-the-moment and profoundly unsettling.

Adam Bhala Lough’s documentary profiles the crypto-anarchists behind the Bitcoin app Dark Wallet and explores the new frontier of anti-government, anti-corporate activism from multiple perspectives.

Locating the common ground between pro-gun activism and anti-big-bank subversion, The New Radical is as complex as it is discomforting. Adam Bhala Lough’s portrait of two key figures in the world of internet-enabled antiauthoritarianism explores a new paradigm of political extremism, one whose provocations and innovations include virtual currency and 3D-printed pistols. Densely packed with info, incident and philosophy, the film is a guaranteed debate sparker. Its strength lies not just in the filmmaker’s intimate access to his subjects, but in the multiple points of view he engages. The doc's voices include those of journalists, a former FBI agent, a Department of Justice prosecutor and Julian Assange. (Closing credits note that the NRA and the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety declined comment.) 

Born days apart in 1988, Cody Wilson and Amir Taaki are temperamentally different radicals who joined forces to create Dark Wallet, a project that takes Bitcoin further by making transactions anonymous. Wilson, an Arkansas native and former law school student, was named one of the 15 most dangerous people in the world by Wired for his Defense Distributed project; the Iranian-British programmer Amir Taaki earned a place on Forbes’ list of top entrepreneurs as a leading developer of applications for the virtual currency Bitcoin. The looser-limbed Taaki, who prides himself on never having worked a job, is more connected to a radical tradition and deeply concerned with international politics, whereas the self-certain Wilson — a precocious intellect, one of his professors attests — comes off as more of a provocateur. 

It’s Wilson’s 3D-printable gun the Liberator that pushes First Amendment advocacy — by way of a debatable Second Amendment interpretation — past the breaking point for many. At first his clarity about individual rights versus the ever-growing concentration of wealth and power might make you wonder — hope? — that it’s all a stunt to make a point. But no. The blueprints for the “wiki weapon” that Wilson posted online were real, and 100,000 people downloaded them before the State Department forced him to remove them from his site. The project also was removed from Indiegogo, and the 3D printer he purchased was repossessed. Later, when he tries manufacturing the plastic pistols through a different route, PayPal cancels $750,000 in sales. But his cause doesn’t rest, as his lawsuit against the government, claiming a violation of his right to free speech, makes its way through the courts. 

The time-setting news photos that Lough uses to open many of the chapters of his well-constructed, fast-moving chronicle serve as shorthand for the fraught American debate over guns. We get headlines and images of towns and cities whose names have become synonymous with mass slaughter: Newtown, Orlando, Charleston, San Bernardino. We get the harrowingly familiar images of police officers killing unarmed black civilians.

It’s easy to be horrified by the prospect of gun-law-evading weapons being a mere DIY click away, but if you’re not an absolutist like Wilson and Taaki, it’s less easy to parse the dividing line between what’s permitted and what’s prohibited in the realms of speech, commerce and access to technology. Lough deals at some length with the draconian sentence of life without parole for Ross Ulbricht, founder of the Silk Road darknet marketplace, a punishment that indicates quite clearly how the justice system views the darknet — as opposed to, say, the banks that traded away people’s life savings. 

Like it or not, there’s rich food for thought in Wilson and Taaki’s rationales, but they grow wearying and more off-putting the longer they go on. The film itself, though, with its interwoven layers of commentary, both spoken and visual, never flags — a testament to the work of editors Jay Rabinowitz and Alex Lee Moyer. Lough punctuates what could have turned into an information overload with stylized black-and-white animation — illustrating, for example, the undercurrent of surveillance and paranoia in the crypto-anarchist way of life. Snippets of Anthony Perkins in The Trial emphasize the theme of the individual against an irrational state. 

To question government rigorously has always been a central tenet of radicalism. The questioning continues, but as Lough’s doc makes clear, the methods and focus have shifted. For a disenfranchised generation with nothing to lose and the internet at their disposal, the enterprise of upending the status quo has taken on an unprecedented immediacy, and from within previously nonexistent shadows. 

The “real politics” that today’s anarchists believe in has nothing to do with the established parties. “Democracy has been liquidated,” Wilson says, voicing an opinion that makes him less of an anomaly than he might have been a mere decade ago. Lough carries the film through the presidential election results, finding Wilson, no fan of the winner, as surprised as most of us. His hope that the aversion of “coastal liberals” to Trump might lure them to his gun-printing project, in pursuit of personal defense against the government, suggests either an unshakable conviction or an entrepreneurial pitchman’s pivot. It also comes off as tone-deaf to the convictions of gun-control advocates. Maybe he understands less about the American political landscape than he thinks he does. Or maybe we all understand less than we think we do about where this civilization thing is headed.

Production company: Istic Illic Pictures, Votiv, Alldayeveryday
Director-screenwriter: Adam Bhala Lough
Producers: Lucy Sumner, Alex Needles, Brent Stiefel
Executive producer: Greg Stewart
Director of photography: Christopher Messina
Editors: Jay Rabinowitz, Alex Lee Moyer
Composer: Clint Mansell
Animation: Bug & Sluzzy
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)

117 minutes