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Review: 'The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz' is a harrowing cyber-thriller
Brian Knappenberger's Sundance doc generates sadness and anger
There is a perception that on the list of liberal enclaves, the Sundance Film Festival ranks only slightly below a poetry reading in San Francisco and Communist Party fundraiser in Boston.
There's probably some truth to that.
However, hell hath no fury like a Sundance documentary director disappointed and the unfulfilled potential of President Obama has been a running theme over the past couple years. No amount of Fox News Obama condemnation could ever match the sense of betrayal illustrated in Rick Rowley's "Dirty Wars." Michelle Obama hasn't been immune either, as the First Lady's difficulties taking a hard line with food mass-producers is depicted as a major letdown in "Fed Up." Half of the World Docs seem to wish their central dilemma were receiving more or less attention from the Obama Administration.
With the possible exception of "Mitt," you'd be hard-pressed to find a Sundance documentary that wants to claim things would be better had the election results gone differently, but a consistent running undercurrent of recent Sundances is, "President Obama. Dude. You were supposed to be better than this."
When it comes to eroded idealism, it's hard to get more damning than Brian Knappenberger's "The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz," which begins with news talking heads declaring that the title cyber-activist was "killed by the government" and spends the next 100 minutes confidently underlining that point. No, President Obama isn't really blamed for Aaron Swartz's death, at least not directly, but when it comes to the overzealous prosecution of the Reddit co-founder, there's little doubt that the message is, once again, "We expected better."
Actually, I should change the punctuation there. It has to be "We expected better!" because Knappenberger's doc, playing in the US Documentary Competition at Sundance, is all about exclamatory mood. For maybe 30 minutes, you go "Wow, look at this brilliant young man!" Then for maybe 40 minutes you go, "Wow, I'm so angry about what was done to this brilliant young man" and then for the last 30 minutes, you go, "Boy, it's so sad what happened to that brilliant young man!" Of course, all of that exclamation can sometimes be exhausting and Knappenberger maybe underlines some of his points a little aggressively, but he really wants to make sure you feel the outrage of Swartz's tragically brief life.
And I did.
[More after the break...]
I'll confess that I only knew the Aaron Swartz situation in very broad strokes. I'd seen him talking about Internet issues on TV and I had the vaguest of recollections of his involvement in the overthrow of SOPA and PIPA in 2012. I knew that he was being presented as an information freedom martyr and that he was facing felony charges that people seemed to suggest were absurd. And then, just over a year ago, Swartz killed himself and some of the people I most respect within my social media sphere were crushed, which prompted me to learn more, after it was already too late.
"The Internet's Own Boy" added even more shading to the life of a man whose work and impact I didn't pay enough attention to until it was too late.
Every once in a while, I see people say stupid things about how documentaries are supposed to be objective. I feel like you probably see that less and less these days, since we've largely gotten past the belief that even the news is going to be objective. So "The Internet's Own Boy" is unashamedly partisan in support of Swartz. And what else would you expect? You figured high-ranking Justice Department officials might stop by and go, "Ooops. In retrospect, maybe we went too far"? You thought MIT officials might think this was the right opportunity to say, "Maybe we should have stood behind Aaron, since what he did was in the spirit of everything we believe in"? Or, heck, if you want to view this whole thing from a different perspective, did you expect anybody to show up and go, "Look, we know you think the charges were trumped up, and maybe they were, but selective targeting aside, Swartz did what we said he did and it's not our fault what came next."
Of course not. The major interview subjects in "The Internet's Own Boy" are Swartz's parents and brothers Noah and Ben. He's canonized by the best and brightest of fellow activists, including Peter Eckersley and Carl Malamud. The only political figures going on the record are progressives Ron Wyden and Zoe Lofgren.
The closest the documentary comes to an "adversarial" figure was Swartz's ex Quinn Norton, who has totally unfairly been portrayed in some fringe circles as Swartz's Judas. It's actually totally crushing to see Norton discuss her queen-for-a-day deal with Justice and how she came to give them the information she gave them. Nobody in the documentary blames Norton for anything and you'll come away feeling that she was a victim as well.
But mostly, "The Internet's Own Boy" is a love-fest.
I don't normally love soup-to-nuts Wikipedia-docs that take wholly chronological approaches to a subject's life and, in that context, the part of "The Internet's Own Boy" that interested me least was the straight-ahead recitation of all of the wicked smart things Swartz did in the professional sphere, the websites he started, the opportunities for wealth he eschewed. But I quite enjoyed what came before and after.
The Swartz family was loving and well-to-do and Aaron Swartz was a highly encouraged child, with much of his precocity documented in home movies and also in recollections from his siblings. Swartz was so far ahead of the learning curve that he's not exactly relatable, but when you hear about one of the great computer minds ever learning the tools of the trade by creating a BASIC-fueled "Star Wars" trivia game? Well, it makes the kid likable. There's an innocence to the first act of the documentary, as you hear about this cute little twerp -- his brother's word, not mine -- who would only eat white foods, who encouraged a sibling to dress up as an iMac for Halloween, who thought of Fiona Apple's "Extraordinary Machine" as his theme song, that really pays off later.
"The Internet's Own Boy" is a really wonky documentary and it's full of smart, socially awkward people trying to make it easy to process the case's key jargon, whether we're talking about PACER or JSTOR or a
PERL Perl script or just about anything featuring all upper-case letters. But even if you don't necessarily understand the terminology and even if you're not especially invested in the idea of opening up public access to the public domain, Knappenberger plays the second half of the movie like a thriller, much more of a 21st Century "Parallax View" or "Day of the Condor" than anything depicted in "The Net" or most of what has passed for cyber-thrillers coming out of Hollywood. It helps that even if you, as a viewer, don't understand the urgency of everything being discussed, the talking heads feel the urgency and explain the urgency. Bonus kudos in this department to composer John Dragonetti for a score that gets the pulse pounding.
I appreciate that Knappenberger doesn't wallow in details about Swartz's death, including his alleged mindset. Even though he had a girlfriend at the time and even though his family could tell he was depressed, nobody attempts to make a clinical diagnosis they're not qualified to make. It's a relief and it lets us look at the impact his death had on people, rather than being ghoulish.
"The Internet's Own Boy" capped off what I've called The Oy Vey The Internet Is Freaky Trilogy at Sundance. While "Web Junkie" and "Love Child" were about the problems of giving up your real life for a virtual life, "The Internet's Own Boy" has a core optimism. As much as anything, Aaron Swartz saw the potential of how the Internet could function as a powerful communal space, how spending your life within this world could actually connect you to something bigger, rather than isolating you further. That ultimately Swartz was a victim of his own ideology is more a reflection of a government that was, as one talking head observes correctly, on the wrong side of history. But still, The Internet Is Freaky.
[Semi-related side note: Although I felt that "Love Child," "Web Junkie" and "The Internet's Own Boy" were the centerpieces of this year's biggest Sundance documentary trend, all three films were shut out entirely from Saturday's Sundance awards. The Sundance awards are entirely about tokenism and I find it hard to believe that there wasn't some way to honor this trio, either cumulatively or individually. I think maybe a "Love Child" editing award might have been logical? Or an editing award for "Internet's Own Boy"? Except that "Watchers of the Sky" was a very well edited movie. So really, I'd have joined all three together in a Special Jury Prize of some sort. But that's just me...]