I have nothing negative to say about Alex Winter’s Deep Web, except maybe that the title is a bit misleading. The documentary is not about the Deep Web so much as a small section of it. It’s about the notorious black market site Silk Road and its alleged primary owner and operator, Ross William Ulbricht, aka “the Dread Pirate Roberts,” who was arrested in 2013 for facilitating the trafficking of illegal drugs, among other charges. I do find it strange that the film premiered at SXSW early this year before Ulbright’s sentencing occurred, but by the time I saw it the story was complete so I guess that’s all that matters.
I also have nothing overly positive to say about the doc, either. It’s another fine chronicling of a particular part of internet history, much like Winter’s previous feature, Downloaded, which tells the tale of Napster. Both films deal with figures who took the heat for a hydra-like beast that is much bigger than any one individual can be responsible for. The government shut down Napster and Silk Road, and then other platforms just like them — or literally just the same as them — popped up in their place. Just as Napster became synonymous with downloading music illegally, Silk Road is marked as the poster site for the entire hidden web.
One thing I do like about Deep Web is that it’s narrated by Keanu Reeves, seemingly just because he and Winter are buddies and this is a Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure reunion for fans still patiently awaiting a third installment of that sci-fi comedy series, plus Reeves is apparently a Bitcoin enthusiast. But it’s also perfect because of Reeves’s association with one of the most iconic films about people residing beneath the oppressive bindings of a mainstream computer network: The Matrix. His presence makes the doc seem to side with Ulbricht and the Silk Road even if otherwise Winter’s stance comes off as fairly neutral.
Part of the reason that I’m hung up on the title is that I expect more documentaries on the rest of the Deep Web. Maybe there will even be another involving additional aspects and stories of the Silk Road (I wouldn’t mind one that manages an interview with Ulbricht since I kept forgetting during Deep Web that he is actually still alive). After all, there are multiple docs on Bitcoin, including the one I consider a perfectly good primer, The Rise and Rise of Bitcoin. That’s a doc I’m glad I’d seen before Deep Web since Winter’s film doesn’t go too much into what it is, so it’s worth having that other film as a kind of unofficial appendix. I was also glad I’d seen Downloaded and a number of other essential histories of some important component of the net.
With his own two internet-focused docs, Winter is worth lumping together with Brian Knappenberger, director of We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists and The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz. Winter’s films aren’t quite as good but they’re just as necessary (as is The Rise and Rise of Bitcoin) in providing comprehensive and comprehensible introductions and reports on subject matter that isn’t merely interesting but is in fact imperative, as far as our needing to better understand this great bit infrastructure we’ve mostly quickly taken for granted.
We Are Legion shows us how so much of the internet is connected, far beyond the literal sense, and why that’s a big deal for the world overall. The docs that have and are coming out since are expanding this idea and are related to each other as a result. Winter’s pair are especially notable for being specific histories yet easily representing more people and enterprises that could or may one day be alternated with the guys behind Napster and the Silk Road (Deep Web itself sometimes feels like a remake of Downloaded substituting in a different protagonist). A lot of these subjects, Aaron Swartz most obviously, have even served as examples, by the government and by activists and by the documentaries, of the bigger situations involved.
It’s surely excessive to go so far as to say these films all form an informal cinematic universe, but with that being such a big buzz phrase right now I want to appropriate it for all kinds of docs — never mind that all docs are technically in a way a part of our real universe. With at least the five films mentioned in this review, there’s a shared outlook that’s not exactly either hopeful or worried but at least concerned with what has happened, what is happening and where we’re headed. And they have likeminded heroes (or antiheroes if you wish), more of which I’d like to see documented, preferably by Knappenberger and Winter.