“AlphaGo” Film Review: The Art of Capturing the Essence

The documentary “AlphaGo” had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York a few days ago. About a year had passed since the epic Lee Sedol — AlphaGo challenge match — a whole year in which I awaited the film so eagerly. When I received an invitation to the premiere, I decided I didn’t want to wait much longer. It was also a lucky coincidence that I could make the trip to New York without missing any of my classes.

“You can write more, but I can’t guarantee that I will continue reading” said Prof. Probst, encouraging us MBA students not to write one bit beyond the assigned page count. If I learned one lesson from my classes, it’s the importance of communication skills. In discussions or written reports, I need to express my thoughts in a clear and succinct style, while under pressure of time and space. I find this especially difficult when I have lots of intertwined ideas in my head.

During the Google DeepMind Challenge Match in Seoul last year, the “AlphaGo” crew couldn’t have been more enthusiastic. Producers Gary and Josh constantly came up with new ideas, and were willing to go literally anywhere to seek good interviews. The fact that they didn’t know how the story would evolve must have pushed them to collect as much footage as possible. I watched Greg, the director, and his crew running everywhere with their huge camera and equipment. I couldn’t help but wonder how they would digest thousands hours of footage into a ninety-minute film.

“Beautifully captured” was my conclusion. The film does not just summarize what happened. After all, it is no secret that AlphaGo won the match. Beyond reporting facts, the movie captures the feelings and atmosphere of the event in a powerful manner. Close-up scenes of Lee Sedol’s reactions dramatically depict his realization of AlphaGo’s ingenuity. The Korean commentators’ short and helpless grief reflects the Go community’s shock and pain at the moment of Lee’s first defeat. An inside peek at the match room shows tension in a way that no words can describe. Fan Hui’s narration is so delightfully honest and genuine that it drives the audience’s emotions throughout the film.

At the same time, the movie does not gloss over important details, such as the technology behind AlphaGo or the historical and cultural aspects of Go in Korea. If anything could be added, I would include information about the primitive level of top Go A.I.s before AlphaGo, and more about professional Go players’ lives and pride, to provide more context for Lee Sedol’s pre-match confidence, and Go players’ changing perception of AlphaGo as the match advanced. Yet, the film already uses every single second to capture the essence of the match, and more.

My trip to New York was like a short sweet dream, and I feel like I had another dream of re-living the AlphaGo event inside that dream. Dreams are not meant to be remembered, scientists say. If I remember one thing from this dream, however, it is that I greatly admire those who can capture and communicate the essence of a complicated story.

Dan Maas, Hajin Lee, Andrew Jackson at the AlphaGo premiere afterparty