Internet's Own Boy, The: The Story of Aaron Swartz

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/05/14 14:31:33

"A worthy story with something missing."
3 stars (Average)

It's a horribly clinical thing to say, but building a movie around someone who committed suicide requires even more care than other documentaries. It distorts the audience's perceptions and makes the filmmaker walk on eggshells, and in the case of "The Internet's Own Boy", it leaves a big hole in how writer/director Brian Knappenberger tells an otherwise intriguing and important story.

Aaron Swartz, for those who don't recognize the name, was one of the people who helped shape the internet at the turn of the twenty-first century, helping to define the RSS protocol while still a teenager and then, dropping out of Stanford after a year, and starting one of the companies that would merge and become Reddit. The startup life was not for him, though, and he soon turned his attention to social justice, where he helped spearhead the campaign against the Stop Online Piracy Act. At around that time, an attempt to download the J-Stor database of academic journals escalated into a federal case that consumed him until he took his own life.

The most important thing a documentary can do is to present information clearly, and Knappenberger does that well. There are technical discussions and social issues that, because it's the twenty-first century and the internet, can have cause and effect be rather indirect and abstracted. Knappenger clearly has his sympathies with Swartz, and occasionally this causes him to throw some assumptions in with his explanations, but never to the point of making leaps that seem unreasonable.

He puts together an watchable movie around those ideas, mostly pieced together from interviews with those who knew Katz - his parents and brothers, legends in the technology field (including internet creator Tim Berners-Lee), civil liberties figures such as Lawrence Lessig, and girlfriends Quinn Norton and Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman. Knappenberger doesn't turn the film into an unbroken string of talking heads, though, mixing in enough narration, animation, and other footage to keep things moving.

If this were a story that ended any other way, that might be enough, but Swartz committed suicide, a drastic action that demands a more thorough explanation. Maybe it's rare for the government to harass a citizen this much, but Knappenberger spends the entire picture building Swartz up as someone confident and certain, often using the same shots from what looks like a magazine cover shoot of him grinning and illuminated from beneath. Knappenberger cuts in comments about how Swartz may have had problems with depression in the past, but it's not the same as making the audience feel how the situation built to tragedy.

It does little to blunt the film's core message, especially once the quotation that gives the film its title is uttered. The movie is packed full of ideas and stories that people should hear, and I really can't blame Knappenberger for not wanting to dwell on what caused its hero to break. There's just no denying that it's an important part of the tale that's missing, one which robs the film of some of the power that it would have rightfully had.

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