During one of the interviews featured in Brian Knappenberger’s documentary “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story Of Aaron Swartz,” the late Hacktivist describes the duality of the internet: on the one hand it gives you a wealth of free information, and is the symbol of liberty, on the other hand it can be used to track your every move and destabilize privacy. It’s both good and evil, and it’s up to people to decide how they’re going to use it. Swartz built his short-lived life around utilizing all the good things the internet can offer, understanding the potential of its unimaginable power to store and spread knowledge and passionately trying to make it easier, simpler, cheaper, and safer for people all over the world to gain from it. The documentary sledgehammers this point ad nauseam, but while this one-sidedness make it feel a little too preachy at times, Knappenberger does well to contrast it against a government with completely skewed notions of liberty and public information. It’s classic Good vs. Evil stuff.
Depending on how much you know about the life of Aaron Swartz, you’ll end up either nodding approvingly to most of ‘Internet’s Own Boy,’ or silently mouthing “wow” at the kind of brilliant mind at display. Much like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, people whom Swartz is compared to in the documentary, this is about a singular kind of mind, which started thinking about how to change the status quo at a very young age. For example, while most of us were still trying to figure out ctrl+alt+delete functionalities at the age of 14, Swartz was a member of the working group that developed the RSS feed. The documentary does a solid enough job at revealing the kind of childhood Swartz had and, thanks to the talking heads and his closest family members, we understand very clearly how he was one of those kids destined to grow up into someone larger than life. Learning to read at the age of three, getting glued to computers as soon as his dad bought him his first DOS system, and having a predilection for teaching, were all signs of his future popularity and activist character.
Knappenberger knows exactly where the real conflict of Aaron Swartz’s story lies, and it’s not in the progression of his work life or his co-founding of Reddit. The bit about Reddit, arguably the greatest legacy Swartz left behind and what he’s instantly recognized for, is treated like a footnote and takes all but 2 minutes of screen time. No, the real deal with Swartz is his premature death, which is the very first thing we hear about as the opening credit sequence begins to roll. At the age of 26, Swartz was found dead in his apartment, and this documentary will systemically show and tell you who the murderer is. Thanks to dialogue snippets from interviews we’ll get to hear a little later one, there is no secret: the government and MIT – just an extended branch of the “system,” really – is what led Aaron Swartz to commit suicide. Not that there is anything wrong in this approach of documentary filmmaking, essentially laying out all of your cards before everyone even gets properly seated at the table, but it doesn’t make for very exciting or compelling cinema. It’s rather the kind of documentary that is, essentially, a form of propaganda. But it’s extremely positive and important propaganda and, because of its tragic end, the dramatic flourish will raise goose bumps regardless of whether you knew the end before the film even began.
And there are moments, people, and instances that will doubtless open up some viewers’ eyes to aspects he or she may have not known about before. Did you know that the guy who invented the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, gave it away for free when he could have made untold millions of dollars from it? Or, how close we got to having the SOPA and PIPA bills passed through Congress, our freedom of expression online on a knife-edge, if it wasn’t for people like Swartz who rallied against it? What about when the FBI found Swartz’ laptop in the MIT closet downloading JSTOR academic documents, and instead of seizing it or finding out who it belonged to, installed a security camera so they could catch him in the act, essentially to build a case against a 20-something who was hurting no one, and only believed in legitimate public access to knowledge? OK, so maybe you did know that and this reviewer’s disconnect with the real world has been slightly exposed, but this is the kind of stuff that Knappenberger’s ‘Internet’s Own Boy’ grips you with and uses to pull you in. And it works because real-life drama doesn’t need to rely on the element of surprise when it’s got truth backing it up.
In short, Aaron Swartz wanted to make the world a better place, and this documentary makes sure you never forget that. His inability to be caged inside office spaces, his indifference towards money and fame, and his progressive politics are idiosyncrasies that prove he was truly noble and free-spirited. The most cinematic Knappenberger gets in pitting this brittle, noble spirit against the evil mechanics of a wholly misguided legal system is through the use of John Dragonetti’s expressive score. But what it lacks in cinematic girth, it makes up for in factual appeal. It’s not for nothing that the buzz around this doc started so strongly at Sundance. Swartz keenly observed that the Internet has provided everyone with a “license to speak…the question is ‘who gets heard?’” The ‘Internet’s Own Boy’ makes you feel privileged to have heard such a voice as his, without ever forgetting the injustice of having it silenced so prematurely. [B]