Ondi Timoner’s Doc  

Ondi Timoner’s documentary The New Americans: Gaming a Revolution surely doesn’t lack for ambition. 

In a jam-packed 102 minutes, The New Americans aims to explain a string of recent Internet-fueled financial misadventures; to somewhat update the meditations on Internet-connected communities and online social anxiety that were part of her acclaimed 2009 film We Live in Public; and to link those things to a toxicity that culminated in the chaos of January 6, 2021.

The New Americans: Gaming a Revolution

The Bottom Line

An energetically superficial explainer.

Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight)
Director: Ondi Timoner

1 hour 42 minutes

The New Americans takes a meme-ified approach to understanding the meme-ified intersection of online culture, the financial sector and the rise of different strains of extremism. But like a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox, the relationship between the documentary and the information it’s attempting to elucidate becomes a blur.  

The film wants to separate the signal from the noise in the public discourse, but it’s so enamored with the sensory madness that it just becomes more cacophony.

If We Live in Public told the story of artists who believed that the Internet and the personalities it amplified had the potential to deliver something real, exposed and intimate, The New Americans picks up at a moment when artifice reigns. A modern gang of Merry Pranksters has taken on the mantle of the counterculture, targeting the same corrupt and failing institutions — Wall Street! Government! Whatever older generation just doesn’t understand! — as strains of cogent ideology get appropriated by the extremes of the extreme, losing meaning and losing the message until we’re left with the Manson Family or, in 2023, probably an NFT of the Manson Family.

It seems like every week last year saw the release of a different limited series or documentary giving a cursory overview of a different instance of misadventure or even fraud, usually with an online backdrop. WeWork! Theranos! Uber! I’m guessing that within a year, the subject matter in The New Americans will have been spun off into dozens of comparable projects, doubtlessly handling the topics with more depth and coherence, if perhaps less flair. GameStop! NFTs! Crypto! 

Yes, I know this review contains a lot of exclamation points. But The New Americans is an exclamation point kind of movie. It digs deep into YouTube comments and subreddits, pulling out the doctored movie clips — 300! World War Z! The Matrix! — and popularized animated characters that form a vernacular for a young generation that has, maturing through the 2008 financial crisis and the 2016 and 2020 elections, come to distrust not just authority, but legitimacy. 

There’s a large gap, though, between understanding the language of the memes and understanding actual events and issues that birthed them. The New Americans only achieves the easier first task, despite a steady peppering of talking heads ranging from various Gen Z retail investors to mature and respected authorities like — checks notes — Anthony Scaramucci and Jordan Belfort. Here, I truly don’t know whether Timoner is actually using Scaramucci and Belfort as voices of reason or to illustrate that, in a crisis in which the Scaramuccis and Belforts can fill a “voice of reason” role, we’re all entirely fucked. It feels like the former, because they’re treated with a veneer of respectability and maturity; if it’s the latter, I fear Timoner might be delivering the satire with too much of a straight face.

The most reasonable response to The New Americans is somewhere between confusion and depression. To fight the confusion, Timoner frequently interrupts her flow by having various virtual guides defining buzzwords like “blockchain” and “discord,” thereby guaranteeing that anybody who’s part of the communities featured in this documentary will find the whole affair woefully square. To fight the bleakness? There’s very little here to do that. 

Although The New Americans knows exactly who the enemies are, heroes are few and far between. Maybe it’s somebody like Shepard Fairey, using NFTs and crypto both for advocacy and to provide aid in places like Ukraine. Mostly the documentary’s heroes, though, are just victims themselves or people on the verge of being victims — like the dogecoin investor who watched his personal fortune plummet due to jokes on the Elon Musk-hosted Saturday Night Live or the various old money investors, all shot in stuffy and opulent surroundings, whose contempt for the Young Turks make them completely impossible to sympathize with. It’s as if the dinosaurs were decimated by a GIF from Baby Driver instead of an asteroid. 

For the best of these people, upending financial markets, undermining currencies and making a quick fortune is an intense lark, the product of companies like Robinhood that gamified a complicated world of commerce and flouted a lack of regulation. For the worst of these people, the opportunity to raise real-world stakes in a virtual space hidden behind silly usernames and sillier avatars goes hand-in-hand with the spreading of false or inaccurate information, jeopardizing apparently antiquated concepts like “truth” and contributing to the energy of January 6, if not the literal insurrection. 

Timoner is tremendous at connecting widely separated dots, but less good at articulating exactly how many smaller dots exist between those two points. The New Americans is sometimes a blast to watch. Its energy never flags. But if I’m going to need 5 or 10 more documentaries to make sense of the documentary purporting to make adequate sense of modern life, my energy won’t be nearly as boundless.

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