When it doesn’t let its main focus slip away, Billion Dollar Heist is an engaging, interesting look at one of the most eye-opening cyber heists in history.
I finally purchased a VPN for myself a few days before even hearing about Billion Dollar Heist … and now I feel ever more justified in that purchase.
Discussions around online security and hackers are nothing new, but Billion Dollar Heist puts a specific spotlight on one of the most financially successful cybercrimes of all time. Directed by Daniel Gordon, this documentary focuses on the Bangladeshi Bank robbery, a cyber heist that took place in February 2016 and resulted in the theft of over $100 million dollars from the central bank of Bangladesh. With the help of cyber security experts, we’re told the story by the bank’s workers at the time, taken through the in-depth process that such a heist would have required, and made aware of what the heist insinuates for the cyber security of the rest of the world.
I remember vaguely hearing about the Bangladeshi Bank robbery in passing, but I didn’t know most of the major details. I think I was a bit too scared of those details and what they’d imply about my own online security. But I guess I’ve grown numb to those fears since then, because I really wanted to see what Billion Dollar Heist had to say about the titular heist and the broader internet landscape. As it turns out, the documentary has plenty of fascinating things to say about the heist itself … but not so much about everything around it. Big shock, Billion Dollar Heist is at its strongest when it focuses on … well, the billion-dollar heist.
What we have here is not just a summation of the employees and other involved parties’ experiences or memories of what happened. That would have been standard, but still interesting, and it indeed proves itself to be entertaining. The interviewees, including the employees and various cyber experts, all have different demeanors, ways of communicating, and personalities – ranging from sarcastic to dry to sincere to belittling – that make them memorable in ways not a ton of documentary interview subjects typically are for me. It’s clear that everyone really wanted to take part in this, and you can almost see them reliving the frightening experience in their heads as they talk about it.
But Billion Dollar Heist doesn’t stop there. In what I found its most fascinating portions – and not because I’m planning something, I swear – the film also provides a complex, detailed breakdown of how the heist worked and how these types of cyber criminals operate in general. While I assumed going in that something of this magnitude must have taken a lot of planning and time, I was still taken aback by how much went into the robbery, how integral every single step was, and to be frank, the consequences that just a few feats of utterly brain-dead ineptitude can have. While it was painful to hear about someone clicking on an obviously B.S. email after how drilled into my head my jobs have made it to not do that, it’s something else to be taken step-by-step through an actual instance and its drastic ramifications.
The details we get regarding what each person of the hacking team did and how precisely in sync they had to be with one another made it feel like I was watching a heist breakdown in a Mission: Impossible-style spy flick. But unlike most of those types of fictional examples, this is a case where almost all of the terrible acts are done completely online. As the documentary emphasizes over and over, the lack of almost any flair or visibility is what makes these types of heists so scary and dangerous. Especially the ones in the earlier days of the internet, which was simply not initially built to be secure.
Which brings us to the instances where Billion Dollar Heist goes beyond the scope of the main heist and speaks more broadly about the state of cyber security, over the years as well as right now. This isn’t where the film completely stops being in any way interesting, but it is where Billion Dollar Heist starts treading overly familiar ground. If you’ve read up on any piece discussing cyber security risks or the double-edged sword of an interconnected worldwide network, you have probably heard everything that’s being said already. The points that are brought up are legitimate and obviously relevant to the central story being told, but they take up enough time to give the film a slight feeling of bloat.
This is especially true towards the last third, where the focus gets regularly sidetracked by stories that are only tangentially related to the Bangladesh heist, if even that. They hold your attention fine, but they’re not woven very well into the documentary’s central narrative, causing Billion Dollar Heist to feel jumbled at points. At one point, I briefly forgot that the billion-dollar heist is what the film is even supposed to be about. What stops these detours from outright losing my interest is the continued likeable presence of the interview subjects, as well as a decent amount of creative visual flair that’s used to emphasize the points being made. Comic-book-like animations, reenactments of the Bangladesh bank’s reactions while the heist happened, and even a representation of a hacker’s job via a retro video game level, all do a decent job at keeping your eyes on the screen.
I think Billion Dollar Heist is at least worth a watch, because the main story it tells is really interesting. And if you haven’t been inundated with other stories about cyber crimes or don’t really know the scope they’re capable of, this would be a really good eye-opener that could start you on the path to learn more about the subject matter. It’s a very short, breezy watch with an engaging group of personalities telling a story that, even within the realm of cybercrime, is still pretty unbelievable.
Billion Dollar Heist is available to rent and own in the US on August 15, 2023. Watch Billion Dollar Heist!