In Downtime's final TIFF dispatch, our humble correspondent reviews films about the GameStop short squeeze and John le Carré.
umb Money (Craig Gillespie)
As time continues to dilate and distend until it becomes, per True Detective, a flat circle, period films and TV shows increasingly chronicle the “recent” past. In the case of Dumb Money, adapted from The Antisocial Network by Ben Mezrich—the guy best known for writing flashy non-fiction books about money and tech that seemingly exist to be optioned into films, most of which never see the light of day save for a couple exceptions (mainly The Social Network)—director Craig Gillespie and screenwriters Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo evoke the very recent past. Dumb Money follows the lead up to the GameStop short squeeze that put shady-but-technically-legal hedge fund practices under the microscope, which means it’s set between the fall of 2020 and winter 2021. Hence, the film features numerous macro- and micro-signposts of that time: widespread masking, nurses and DoorDash deliverymen alike under the aegis of “essential worker,” the rise of TikTok, elaborate WFH measures, the mixture of Zoom and in-person schooling, etc. (The film pointedly ignores any hint of national politics, including Biden’s election and the January 6th insurrection.)
It's always a little strange to see pop culture depict history that you vividly remember living through, but Dumb Money takes this to an entirely different level as it basically treats three years ago as if it were a separate era from the present day. To be fair, this isn’t entirely inaccurate: the rise of COVID will always be considered a global historical marker and its effects directly connect with the film’s Internet focus. It’s eminently believable that a bunch of people stuck in their homes with time on their hands fell down the rabbit hole of the WallStreetBets subreddit and became obsessed with the advice of Keith Gill, a.k.a Roaring Kitty on YouTube and DeepFuckingValue (DFV) on Reddit. In Gillespie’s film, Paul Dano plays the earnest Gill, whose costume prominently features a red headband and his lair a “Hang In There” cat poster, as he preaches to the web about his interest in GameStop stock. His disarming attitude and dorky demeanor garner him a diverse audience that Dumb Money distills into a small coterie of working-class everymen and women: a recently divorced nurse (America Ferrera), two queer college students in debt (Myha'la Herrold and Talia Ryder), and a GameStop clerk riding the poverty line (Anthony Ramos).
Meanwhile, the ostensibly villainous group of hedge fund managers are largely defined by their opulent mansions and enormous support staffs. We spend the most time with Melvin Capital founder Gabe Plotkin (Seth Rogen), whose underestimation of retail investors loses him a billion dollars daily and who somehow amasses some audience sympathy by the nature of Rogen’s always-amiable performance. Steve Cohen (Vincent D'Onofrio), owner of the New York Mets and the loose inspiration for Damian Lewis’ character on Billions, appears in a few scenes, one of which features an enormous pet pig, which the real-life Cohen owned and reportedly sent away to a vegan farm in 2015. (The pig cameo could also be seen as a sly reference to one of D’Onofrio’s beloved tweets.) On first glance, it seems that the character of Citadel CEO Ken Griffin (Nick Offerman), a taciturn asshole arguably best known in real life for his numerous contributions to the campaigns of just about every conservative politician, might have been severely reduced in the edit, possibly because the real-life Griffin reached out to Sony Pictures to demand script changes ahead of production. (Schuker Blum and Angelo strongly deny this claim.)
Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo, former Orange is the New Black writers, take a fairly broad approach to its “us vs. them” narrative, primarily relying on the actors and production designer Scott Kuzio to imbue the characters with credibility. Yet, the film’s soap operatic style largely works in Dumb Money’s favor since historical retelling via snappy entertainment appears to be everyone’s primary goal. Gillespie keeps events moving at a fast clip, basically conveying everything from its class warfare theme to financial information through cross-cutting and montage. (Credit where its due: Dumb Money doesn’t rely on Adam McKay-style direct-to-camera explanations of complex jargon because it doesn’t require anyone to understand concepts like “short squeeze” to be entertained.) Regular David Fincher editor Kirk Baxter ensures Dumb Money frequently mirrors the pace of meme proliferation and short-form video content to capture the GameStop saga’s timeline. Admittedly, the film slows down whenever it focuses on Gill or his family, which include a clichéd supportive wife (Shailene Woodley) and a slightly-less-clichéd fuck-up brother (Pete Davidson), but speed remains its greatest asset.
Dumb Money suffers from borderline-compulsory flaws that are more-or-less unavoidable in contemporary studio fare. Gillespie divests its class underdog theme of any subtlety or maturity through near-constant reiteration, especially via Ferrera’s character. Every single supporting character has a narratively or thematically on-task origin story that brought them into the GameStop fold. The film’s title-card suggestion that Gill’s 15 minutes of fame led to any kind of permanent stock market democratization or working-class revolution is downright laughable. It’s impossible to ignore the brain-breaking irony of Dumb Money being executive produced by Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, two people who resemble the film’s villains more than its heroes clearly trying to launder their reputations through its superficially progressive message.
Gillespie et al omits, elides, and ignores complicating factors in the GameStop story just as much as they embrace supporting evidence, but there’s something to be said about the film’s historical attitude. From its soundtrack to the plethora of Reddit-based memes, Dumb Money immerses itself in disposable content; the sounds and images of three years ago—much of it crass and ironic, most indivisibly tied to their historical moment, none of it created with any concern for lasting legacy—become the film’s principal vantage point. Dumb Money intrigues when it cuts between montages of offensive, purposefully misspelled memes or abrasive TikToks with traditional anchor-driven CNBC news footage. Sure, it’s a too-neat illustration of the unbridgeable gap between old and new media, but it also contains a lesson that too many people forget: the primary documents of any historical moment are always going to be stupider and more forgettable than anyone can ever anticipate.
Dumb Money is currently in limited release. It will expand to a wide release on September 29.
Pigeon Tunnel (Errol Morris)
David Cornwell, most popularly known by his nom de plume John le Carré, published his memoir The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life in 2016, four years before his death. An outlier in a bibliography primarily characterized by novels, The Pigeon Tunnel was a conscious response to Adam Sisman’s 652-page biography of the author. Though Cornwell actively cooperated with Sisman, he reportedly felt uncomfortable with the publicization of his life story through someone else’s words. Hence, he sought to reclaim his own stories by instilling them with his personalized recollections. He details his history in intelligence work and expounds upon the real-life inspirations for his beloved characters, and delves into his relationship with his con artist father.
Documentarian Errol Morris’ latest film The Pigeon Tunnel functions as a sly adaptation of Cornwell’s memoir, but largely serves to place the acclaimed espionage writer on screen for what would be his final interview. While Morris fills out the film with what has become dependable, familiar visual fixtures—lavish reenactments, archival footage, music cues, interstitial shots—Cornwell’s distinguished visage and wry, steadfast voice holds the most sway. While some might argue there’s little difference in reading a man remember his early life and watching him recount it, especially if he’s essentially using the same language, The Pigeon Tunnel implicitly contends that Cornwell—a famously photographed and well-interviewed man throughout the 20th century, especially at the height of his popularity—needed to have his last words captured through the eyes of Morris, specifically.
But it’s sometimes tough to decipher why. Morris employs his standard interview practice of engaging in an extended conversation that incorporates many probing questions. It’s a style that works best when there’s an ideological divide between Morris and the subject, like between him and former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in The Fog of War, so some sort of conflict can draw out compelling answers. In The Pigeon Tunnel, however, Morris and Cornwell openly share a tremendous respect for each other, which endears in its own way, but ultimately robs the film of any sort of productive tension. While they engage in playful banter about the nature of their relationship, whether Morris is a friend or an interrogator, there’s never any doubt that Morris would wield his directorial authority like a weapon against Cornwell. In this specific case, Morris exists to pay tribute to his subject by fielding him questions that open up his life to the screen.
Subsequently, The Pigeon Tunnel works quite well as a primer to the writing of John le Carré. The film chronicles the writer’s life in snapshots: his early life at Oxford, the breakthrough success of his third novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the defection of MI6 agent Kim Philby to the Soviet Union and how it inspired Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, etc. But Morris squarely focuses on Cornwell’s stormy relationship with his father, a known criminal whose history of fraud prepared him for a lifetime of espionage, both in service of his government and literature. “John le Carré” wasn’t merely the product of Cornwell working deep within British intelligence, it was also the result of him being raised by a man whose debts were so large that he couldn’t walk down the street without looking over his shoulder. By the time Cornwell became a big success, he would end up financially cleaning up after his father much to the old man’s embarrassment.
Anyone already familiar with Cornwell’s life or work won’t learn anything new from these stories, but it’s still compelling to watch him performatively connect the dots between growing up with casual deception and his interest in spycraft as well as the interior lives of traitors and double agents. Betrayal was something so ingrained in Cornwell’s upbringing that it became second nature for him, like when he informed on a communist acquaintance of his at Oxford, an act he feels little remorse about despite his strong misgivings about Cold War tactics and his open criticism of Western political supremacy. Maybe he was trapped by his own entrenched disloyalty, just like the trapped pigeons who were bred specifically to fly through a tunnel so they can be shot by luxury hotel guests like him and his father.
Near the end of the film, Cornwell proudly claims he’s an artist, a title he has earned and richly deserves, but Morris somewhat falters by not further explicating his creative virtues. While Morris doesn’t exactly reduce Cornwell to his father issues (if anything the man does that for himself), the film’s childhood psychologizing ends up somewhat sidelining his literary talents. Granted, one can gleam those talents by reading his books, and the best thing that The Pigeon Tunnel could accomplish would be inspire someone to pick them up for the very first time.
The Pigeon Tunnel will be available to stream on Apple TV+ on October 20.