A few decades ago, a show like “Mr. Robot” — which transforms modern fears of technological instability into suspense — might look like science fiction. These days, however, real life is almost as unsettling. Several recent documentaries on a growing community of hackers and acolytes focus on the developing momentum of a digitally enhanced landscape and the anarchistic tendencies that blossom within it: Laura Poitras’ “Citizenfour” and her yet-to-be-released “Risk” follow the twin struggles of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, while Alex Winter’s “Deep Web” captured the plight of incarcerated dark web pioneer Ross Ulbricht.
Adam Bhala Lough consolidates the focus of these projects with the restless, scattershot approach of “The New Radical,” a portrait of the founders of Dark Wallet, the bitcoin app that allows users to purchase materials without leaving a digital fingerprint. Lough gives these troublemakers a dense platform to voice their extremist perspectives, but the movie primarily works as a deep-dive into the ethos shared by a merry band of misfits who see themselves as heroes, then lets viewers sort out the truth.
As with “Mr. Robot,” Lough gets so close with their vision of the digital frontier that the movie often exists within its confines. And, like the show, the movie remakes the creepy image of the introverted computer geek into a valiant warrior facing off against the restrictions of a society steeped in fear.
For the most part, Lough shifts between two key figures behind the Dark Wallet effort: Cody Wilson, a stalwart Second Amendment enthusiast best known for circulating a digital file allowing users to print their own guns, and British bitcoin advocate Amir Taaki, now living under house arrest and under investigation for terrorism. Both men are young and garrulous activists eager to spread their desire for greater transparency and an upending of global economic systems, and Lough strikes a fascinating contrast between eager discussion of their philosophies and the way the media reduces it to shadowy caricature. When Glenn Beck asks Wilson if he’s a hero or a villain, he retorts, “I don’t like the dichotomy.”
Lough’s movie hovers in that ambiguity. “The New Radical” unfolds as a scrappy and freewheeling blend of interviews and archival footage set to a nervous synth score. It lacks the formal ambition of Lough’s most distinctive earlier works, which include his Lil’ Wayne portrait “The Carter” and “Hot Sugar’s Cold World,” which explores an idiosyncratic electronic musician through his own embellished view of his life. But “The New Radical” makes up for its rather straightforward path with access, and willingness to dig so deeply into its subjects that it has the effect of witnessing their ethos from the inside out. Lough structures the entire two-hour opus like a single, breathless conversation about modern freedoms and the lack thereof, not quite sympathizing with Wilson and Taaki but acknowledging the progress of their paranoid cause. No matter the extremism of Wilson’s beliefs, he’s eloquent enough to explain them in rational terms.
Though the production of “ghost guns” has horrific ramifications, Wilson’s cause finds him support from people seemingly committed to his freedoms even as they’re opposed to his obsessions. It’s a fascinating pickle: While he refers to his notoriety as making him “some cherub of the disaster to come,” with time he comes across as something far more demonic — an unstoppable force of change for which the modern world has no real precedent. By comparison, the lively Taaki flails about while preaching the nobility of his mission and frantically worrying about government surveillance, illustrating the cartoonish alternative to Wilson’s cold delivery.
Between the two of them, “The New Radical” delivers a fascinating window into the mentalities fueling a generation driven by their intention to destroy the foundations of society in favor of new paradigms. The movie offers some insight into the backgrounds of both men, with details about Wilson’s gun-crazy upbringing in Arkansas speaking volumes about the foundations of his beliefs (and why they tend to disregard liberal causes). Lough excels at clarifying the nature of this community, and why it simultaneously alienates itself from so many political groups while galvanizing others that have lived in the shadows for a generation.
Overlong and hobbled by an unfinished quality, “The New Radical” culminates with Cody suing the Department of Justice and working way toward a Supreme Court case. “America hasn’t treated its radicals well,” he’s told by one supporter, and Cody agrees, adding that the government is “actively trying to stifle innovation.” You don’t have to agree with him to understand the sincerity of his convictions.
“The New Radical” magnifies an emerging desire for major changes to the global marketplace and makes a compelling argument for how those sentiments have gained traction. Ending with the election of Donald Trump, Wilson asserts that the new American president is “a fitting punishment for this country,” and even takes pleasure in the prospects of a poorly regulated society. His summation of that abrupt development: “People are so desperate for an interruption to modernity that they consciously chase the void.” Above all else, “The New Radical” excels at venturing into the thick of that void to reveal the men eager to dwell in its darkness.
“The New Radical” premiered in the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.