Banking on Bitcoin, released in independent cinemas across the US on January 5, tackles the true life stories and public misconceptions surrounding the cryptocurrency's rise to prominence.
Stylistically, Banking on Bitcoin feels a little bit like the 2015 movie about the financial crisis: The Big Short. There are neat graphics of some of the currency’s technical underpinnings. However, it does not rely on actors to tell the story of Bitcoin. The movie draws from interviews with financial columnists from the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times; early adopting bitcoin entrepreneurs like Charlie Shrem and Eric Voorhees, and establishment figures including the Winklevoss brothers and former New York Superintendent Benjamin Lawsky.
For the first half of the movie, the audience is treated to an illustrated tour through the history of the cryptographic technology. It is interesting to learn how small the group of self-styled “cypher punks” who contributed to the ideas that became the building blocks of Bitcoin. In the mid-90s, just a handful of people had the knowledge necessary to develop a blockchain currency. And, the movie unsurprisingly explores the theories that Satoshi Nakamoto, the unknown creator of Bitcoin, may well have been one those original “cypher punks.”
The narrative positions Bitcoin as the only “honest currency” in circulation. The film contrasts the differences between centralized banking systems and the public ledger at the heart of Bitcoin that removes the need for a central authority. It highlights Bitcoin’s power to reduce remittance fees, serve the two and a half billion people on the planet who remain unbanked and put financial control back into the hands of the individual.
Erik Voorhees, the founder of Shapeshift, communicates this sentiment in one of the first interviews:
"I discovered Bitcoin’s power when I understood it was not controlled by a central company or central person. I knew that meant it couldn’t be shut down. And if it can’t get shut down, all it needs is to do something useful, and it will become more and more adopted."
After setting the scene, the movie changes gear and begins to explore the rise, stumble and second wind of the Bitcoin industry. The story dips into the Silk Road and Mt. Gox scandals, as well as Charlie Shrem’s prison sentence for his mistakes with BitInstant. Then the storyline leads smoothly into the climax that pits the Winklevoss brothers, and the rest of the New York Bitcoin Startup scene, against Ben Lawsky.
The film's conclusion exposes the apparent hypocrisy of the financial regulators and paints a picture that is supportive of the innovation and bravery that is needed to push through change. It ends with the unanswered question as to whether the banking industry will eventually swallow up the good intentions of Satoshi Nakamoto and the other "cypher punks."
'Banking on Bitcoin' is an ideal movie to share with those people who are on the fence about Bitcoin. They are going to be exposed to the legitimacy of the currency and the dichotomies at play. If you already think you are familiar with everything described, it is still worth the effort to watch this film. It is entertaining, well shot and the emotion of the key players is visible on the screen. One criticism is that the filmmakers could have shed more light on Bitcoin Core and consulted with them on how to present Bitcoin to the masses.