One might imagine that, if you gave a documentary team unfettered access to a large, well-funded, and controversy-prone cryptocurrency-exchange company over the same three-year period that bitcoin reached its highest price in history and crypto hype broke into mainstream culture, it’d be easy to produce a film that, at the very least, entertains. Crypto’s rise is a story ripe for cinema, one that features endless scammers, newly minted billionaires, flashy startups, gobs of venture capital, fortunes gained and lost overnight, marketplaces for illicit substances, and a technology that looks to replace the global financial system. Given the subject matter, what is most impressive about Coin: A Founder’s Story, the Coinbase documentary, is how bone-grindingly dull it is.

Over 84 monotonous minutes, the viewer follows Coinbase’s CEO Brian Armstrong through the tumultuous adolescence of his cryptocurrency company. What we see isn’t dramatic. In fact, the film—perhaps unintentionally—does an admirable job showcasing the least-sexy aspects and daily grind of entrepreneurship. Most of what we see of our billionaire protagonist is a series of shots as he works (often alone) from his various homes and offices, or gets into and out of chauffeured cars and private jets. There’s no partying or lavish living—just prep calls, Zoom meetings, onstage conference interviews, and executive coaching sessions. At one point in the documentary, Armstrong says that Coinbase aims to be the “adult in the room” in the wild crypto ecosystem, and the film seems to channel this notion as its own mission statement. We see lots of adults doing adult things, like meeting with senators and arranging calls in advance of an IPO.

But Coin also wants you to know that these adults are people, too. The film charts Armstrong’s life from young childhood and focuses a great deal of attention on his relationship with his Coinbase co-founder, Fred Ersham, who left the company in January 2017 (though he remains on the company’s board). At one point, the duo’s executive coach tells them that despite all the money they’ve made and value they’ve created, he’s most proud that Ersham and Armstrong have remained friends.

We get a shot of the two executives giggling while watching a video of a Goldman Sachs managing director announcing their IPO pricing. “I used to sit right there,” Ersham, a former Goldman Sachs trader, points out—the subtext being that he’s come full circle, from a lowly six-figure Wall Streeter to a Silicon Valley billionaire. Around the same time, we get an interview with Ersham’s father, who fights back tears talking about how proud he is of his son and his not-quite rags-to-riches path. The music swells. It is at this moment where I wrote down in my notes, “SERIOUSLY WHO IS THIS MOVIE FOR?”

The answer to that question is, thankfully, quite simple. The film—which was commissioned by Armstrong—is for Armstrong and for Coinbase. And, as far as Silicon Valley marketing goes, it is a reasonably clever attempt to try and humanize not just Armstrong but the idea of Coinbase, the company, as an ultimately altruistic endeavor: an engine for “economic freedom,” a phrase the CEO repeats constantly in the film.

But when the subject of the film is also its intended audience, the end product is both profoundly uninteresting and more than a little uncanny in the way that obvious propaganda tends to be. Outside of Armstrong’s eccentric dot-com-era childhood and a post-college trip to Buenos Aires during times of hyperinflation, and Ersham’s love of video games, the audience is given extremely few personal details of the founders to latch onto. And yet by its end, the film supposes that its audience has fallen for these men and their vision just as Coinbase’s investors have.

As a piece of corporate propaganda, the documentary wants you to know it will not shy away from some of the company’s scandals. The film mentions Coinbase’s controversial acquisition of Neutrino, a blockchain company that employed members of Hacking Team (an organization that sold its services to law-enforcement agencies and governments with atrocious human-rights records). It also covers Armstrong’s internal disputes with employees over his decision to declare Coinbase an apolitical company in the aftermath of the George Floyd protests. But these moments end up feeling like the video equivalent of a company blog post, skipping straight to the founder issuing bromides like “We’re trying to learn from our mistakes” or suggesting that it was a painful, but necessary, part of clarifying the company’s mission.

What is billed as intimate access or radical candor is really just a one-sided examination of Coinbase by those who believe in the company’s mission and its founders. Missing from the film almost entirely are crypto skeptics, or anyone who might be willing to poke holes in Armstrong’s logic that a company built to advance interest in a technology that challenges the monetary power of world governments is somehow not a political project. (That logic is further undermined by Armstrong himself, who spends a decent chunk of the documentary trying to persuade federal lawmakers of crypto’s utility and importance.)

Similarly, Coin makes no real attempt at balancing its techno-utopian talking heads, who predictably extol the virtues of bitcoin and Ethereum as engines of economic inclusion. For all the film’s breathless commentary about crypto’s ability to level the economic playing field, the audience never hears or sees any data to the contrary, like this 2020 report that suggests 2 percent of accounts control 95 percent of all bitcoin wealth.

Perhaps the best example of the film’s faux-radical candor comes during an interview with Annie He, an engineer who left the company after Armstrong’s handling of the politics issue. “I do think I felt some anger, that his position is what made me want to leave,” she says, before adding, “but he did what he needed to shape his company in the way he saw best fit.” Even the gentle criticisms paint Armstrong and Coinbase as deeply principled. You may dislike it, but you have to respect it.

The film’s attempts to humanize Armstrong occasionally offer something revealing. Throughout Coin, Armstrong appears to grapple with what it means to be a CEO and a leader. It’s clear that his true interest is always rooted in the technical challenge of Coinbase. He likes to iterate on the company’s product. The happiest we see him during the documentary is in archival footage of Coinbase’s stressful early days, when he and Ersham would spend their day coding to keep the site up. The most strained we see Armstrong is when he’s forced away from product management and into the people-management side of the job.

Midway through the film, during a one-on-one meeting with Armstrong’s executive coach, the adviser confronts the CEO with an actual bit of radical candor: “The elephant in the room is that you don’t love to manage people, and my prediction, therefore, is that you’re not good at it.” The adviser suggests that Armstrong is part of a streak of introverted Silicon Valley founders who are excellent programmers and product visionaries, but less skilled in the art of navigating messy human relationships. But, because it’s their company, these founders end up taking on the role of chief executive—even though they flounder at the job.

The film’s admission—that the person in charge of a massive company perhaps lacks the ability, and desire, to attend to the very human needs of his employees—is immediately spun into a virtue when, seconds later, Armstrong’s coach praises his ability to hear and accept this kind of criticism. Unlike other CEOs, the coach remarks, Armstrong appears able to step aside from his ego. “All he cares about is improving,” the coach says. “And therefore feedback is the most precious gift.” Precious, indeed.

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