All In: The Poker Movie has a shambling charm that actively disputes an unspoken notion that a documentary must be well-structured in order to effectively land its points. This doc is all over the place, hop-scotching from interview to interview with a seemingly will-nilly abandon. Topics are brought up and left hanging only to resurface at some later point, while other bits appear to barely belong in the film at all. Yet this approach captures the charming bar-room hearsay of a pastime that’s often thought to be gloriously reprehensible. Director Douglas Tirola is clearly sympathetic to the old poker players of lore who played the game in backrooms over beers and cigars, as well as the iconic idea of the cowboy with one hand on his cards and another on a revolver. The thrust of All In, if it truly has one (it touches on enough themes for several movies) is the rise and fall of poker as a mainstream middle-class, and thus safer, preoccupation.
Poker, the film tells us, was once thought of as a card game played by old men and cagey grafters, an association that changed with the rise of players such as Amarillo Slim in the 1970s and Chris Moneymaker, the game’s Rocky Balboa, in 2003. But the man most crucially responsible for the game’s surge in popularity was a figure behind the curtain: Henry Orenstein, a toymaker who invented the Hole Cam, the device that allows you to see the cards the players are holding while watching televised poker tournaments. This innovation, which actively invites audiences into the game, created a craze that helped to foster a new variation of the American citizen’s fantasy of getting rich quick.
The other factor, of course, is online poker, which allows fledgling players to hone their chops without embarrassing themselves directly in front of seasoned players, something that the old-school players interviewed here clearly, and to a point understandably, resent—though, as an online film critic, my depth of empathy with the young bucks is considerable. For a while you assume that All In will be an examination of the cultural rifts that the Internet has fostered between the old and young generations of poker players.
And, to an extent, All In is just that, but Tirola is after a bigger thematic fish that establishes the film as an ideal partner in a double feature with the recent doc Heist: Who Stole the American Dream? Tirola’s film is ultimately yet another illustration of the overwhelming corporate corruption that continues to dog the U.S., as three of the major online poker companies were shut down in 2011 for pulling variations on the kinds of ponzi schemes that we associate with Goldman Sachs, among others. The online poker companies were shut down while Wall Street generally proceeds with its power unchecked—a double standard that a number of the interviewees explain as a mixture of antiquated puritanism (gambling is evil) and unchecked greed (how do we profit as much as humanely possible from this new found national obsession?).
All In primarily features poker experts, with a few celebrities included in an effort to attract more viewers. Matt Damon discusses his work on Rounders, and that film’s co-screenwriter, Brian Koppelman, poignantly muses that he’s sort of perversely happy that poker suffered a government setback, as it allows the game to hopefully become an outlaw sport again. Tirola would appear to share that romanticism to at least an extent, as he has made an engagingly messy, affectionate ode to one of the most popular, gloriously far-fetched fashions of chasing the elusive American Dream.