It’s a safe bet you heard about the whole GameStop thing. Exactly a year ago, an improbable whirlpool of weirdness sucked in armchair investors, hedge fund billionaires, Reddit pundits, Elon Musk and even the US Congress when a bunch of little guys bet big and beat Wall Street. In the process, they exposed the financial system for the rigged game it is.
Beginning with striking shots of Wall Street decked in American flags, new documentary GameStop: Rise of the Players depicts the GameStop story as a quirky David versus Goliath fable. In theaters now, the film does a decent job telling the story but stops short of asking the big questions about society, finance and greed.
Rise of the Players is directed by Jonah Tulis, who previously made the excellent Console Wars. To its credit, the documentary comes out almost exactly a year to the day since the whole thing went down in January 2021. And despite that fast turnaround it does a solid job of explaining the whys and wherefores of a complicated financial phenomenon known as a “short squeeze,” through a barrage of news clips and social media coverage of the event. But its chief strength is its wide-ranging interviews with the ordinary folk who started the whole thing by backing GameStop’s ailing business.
While they’d never met, these mostly amateur investors formed a grassroots movement empowered by the Internet and trading app Robinhood to cut out sharp-suited stockbrokers. Among those investors is a small-town stockbroker making trades on behalf of blue-collar workers. There’s a young man from Alabama instilled with entrepreneurial spirit by his Syrian father. There’s a carefree #vanlife couple watching the stock from the road. And beyond them there’s a whole network of gamers, YouTubers and casual investors who saw something in GameStop that no one else did.
Established stock market players were convinced GameStop was obsolete, their only curiosity being why it hadn’t already gone the way of Blockbuster (especially as COVID shuttered brick-and-mortar stores). That’s seasoned, of course, with a subtext of contempt for what they called “basement-dwelling losers” who play video games and do their trading on Reddit and Robinhood.
The stakes: billions of dollars as hedge funds gambled on GameStop’s share price only going one way. If GameStop turned around, they lost money. Eye-watering amounts of money, it turns out. Of course, the very fact these huge and powerful financial institutions were betting against a company kept the price down. That’s some catch.
The main interest in the film comes from seeing these nice everyday folks stick it to the man. But at the end of the day the GameStop incident is a pretty slight story, and your enjoyment of the film may depend on your tolerance for watching people talking about what other people said on Twitter.
The big short squeeze
The impenetrable nuances of the financial industry are tough to explain in a clear and compelling way. Previous films and TV shows have done it, from Wall Street to The Big Short, but demystified the iniquities of high finance with an extra key ingredient: anger. Rise of the Players nods to the outrage from the public and Congress about Wall Street chicanery targeting the short squeeze, but offers little more than vague conspiracy theories in response.
Next to the work of, say, Alex Gibney, whose documentaries peel back the web of dirty money linking corporations and Silicon Valley and even the White House, Rise of the Players is practically an ad for the stock market. All ya gotta do is download Robinhood, watch some YouTube videos and you too could hit the jackpot!
While the documentary is keen to present these innovations as a democratization of finance, the GameStop story is yet another story exposing the fundamental truth about the financial system. It’s all a game. These regular people played the stock market like a fantasy football league, because that’s all it’s ever been. It doesn’t matter if the player is in the basement or the penthouse, it’s just betting. Peer through the smokescreen of intimidating jargon and ostentatious wealth, and Wall Street is a fantasy football league that’s convinced the world it has a right to your money.
When the dust settles, the film aims for a happy ending. One investor, a nurse, became a millionaire. The original players made millions. And the wicked hedge funds lost billions. The ending even references Ocean’s 11 as our heroes finally meet, in (where else?) Las Vegas. In a movie, you want the plucky underdogs to win. It’s always cool when players beat the house. And you have to cheer for the cancer patient, checking her stock prices in the doctor’s room, who bet her life savings in the hope she could raise the dollar price assigned to her actual life. But the fact she was in that situation clearly shows the system is broken.
By cheerfully celebrating this little victory, the film fails to challenge the idea that the way to beat ruthless profiteers is to play them at their own game. But in the grand scheme, what’s changed? Why do nurses and cancer patients and people like you and me have to gamble our lives for a chance of some table scraps? The GameStop players were smart and committed and deserved their win, but the warm and fuzzy conclusion reached by Rise of the Players is neither happy nor even really an ending.
The house is still standing. The game’s still rigged. The flags still fly over Wall Street.