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Almost exactly one year ago, the business news — and eventually the front-page news — were filled with headlines about the strange, stratospheric rise in the stock price of GameStop, a video game retailer that in the preceding years had been closing stores by the hundreds. The media struggled to sort out the story’s heroes and villains. Were the bad guys the ruthless hedge funds betting big against GameStop? Were the good guys the amateur traders uniting to outwit the pros?
The documentary “GameStop: Rise of the Players” clearly backs the rebels. Director Jonah Tulis and his crew — who previously made the video game documentary “Console Wars” — do speak to a couple of the anti-GameStop Wall Street bigwigs, and the film features a lot of clips of cable news hosts denigrating the company. But most of the talking-head interviews are with some of the ordinary folks who made millions by betting on a wild idea.
The nature of that idea varies depending on who’s describing it. The gist of the GameStop stock story is this: When the company’s value was at rock bottom, a few small-time investors crunched the numbers and saw a real potential for growth, which they explained to friends and followers on social media. As the stock price started inching higher, the idea of buying into GameStop started to catch on among a network of people who enjoy turning the ups and downs of the market into memes.
Around the same time, these dreamers and pranksters found a common enemy in a few hedge fund managers who had taken a “short” position in GameStop, signaling they believed the company was on its last legs. “Rise of the Players” documents the wild ride that ensued, using excerpts from the news and interviews with the main figures to explain how a wave of high-volume buying — coupled with the vocal frustration of the Wall Street establishment — briefly led to a suspension in trading and a congressional investigation.
This documentary has its limitations, both as a piece of reporting and as cinema. Tulis and his editors rarely give the viewer a moment to breathe and reflect, as they race through a blitz of images from internet chats and cable shows. Their approach to the documentary form is merely functional at best, and sometimes is visually unappealing.
They also don’t do enough to distinguish between the Wall Street types who shamelessly dismantle viable businesses and the kinds of short-sellers — lionized in movies like “The Big Short” and “The China Hustle” — who go against the conventional wisdom because they genuinely believe some investments are dangerously shady.
That said, “Rise of the Players” does effectively debunk the notion that the investors who drove up the GameStock price were all either con artists, trolls, anarchists or dupes. In fact, some of the online influencers interviewed here talk about how they worried when the price soared, because they knew not everyone buying in late would make a profit.
Mainly, what helps “Rise of the Players” overcome its stylistic and journalistic weaknesses is that Tulis and company understand why those early GameStop adopters are so easy to root for. For many of them, this investment wasn’t about moving numbers around on a balance sheet. It was partly a game and partly a cause.
More than anything, it was a way to support a chain of businesses — longstanding parts of many local communities across the country — rather than smugly rooting for failure. In “Rise of the Players,” the real story of the GameStop stock frenzy becomes the story of some everyday people reclaiming the original idea of investment: looking to make some money while helping a company survive and thrive.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.