This review was originally published during the South by Southwest Film Festival on March 8, 2014. It is being reposted now for its theatrical and VOD release.
Barely a year passed between the death of Aaron Swartz and the premiere of a documentary honoring him. Normally something like this quickly turned-around film, The Internet’s Own Boy, would be all respectful tribute and emotional testimony. Much of it is, and on the latter point there is understandably a lot of contagious tears from the interviewees, most of them family and friends who are speaking very soon after Swartz’s suicide in January 2013. But while director Brian Knappenberger primarily offers up a loving, elegiac biography aimed at those who already or will see the subject as a hero, there’s a lot more to this doc than who Swartz was, why he was great and how much of a tragedy it is that he’s no longer around.
All of that basic stuff can be sufficiently gleaned from a Wikipedia page, and that’s surely an appropriate place to do so given that Swartz created a similar site of his own as a preteen computer prodigy and continued working on projects devoted to the free, open access of information over the next 14 years of his short existence. To note some of his achievements, we have Swartz to thank in part for RSS, Reddit and Creative Commons as well as for the defeat of SOPA, the infamous Congressional bill to fight piracy that would have drastically altered the web for the worse. He also became the target of federal prosecutors looking to set an example of deterrence following his arrest for copying academic articles from JSTOR. And the burden of that case, in which he faced numerous felony counts, led to his unfortunate decision to take his own life.
Now, especially with this film, Swartz has become another kind of example, a martyr whose death draws attention to his work and mission and sends a message that many must continue the fight in his place. Biography is just a form of history and therefore ought to be something to learn from for the future, and in that way The Internet’s Own Boy is a a valuable follow-up to Knappenberger’s in-depth chronicle of the Anonymous collective in We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists (the histories are tied enough together that you’ll even see clips from the previous doc in the new). In both cases, the filmmaker delivers easily digestible docs on some of the most important movements and issues of our time, those affecting everything from popular culture to the political, worldwide. The new film is predominantly moving and inciting compared to the comically insightful tone driving his last, though, and the SXSW crowd was consistently brought to applause with every highlight of Swartz’s purpose and accomplishment.
Of course, clapping during documentaries is typically from the viewers already on board with what the film is going for. Fortunately, Knappenberger’s ability to turn complicated and normally fringe subject matter (some in the mainstream might call it “nerd” stuff) into accessible, yet never simplistic, movies allows for these stories to appeal to anyone. There are powerful moments in The Internet’s Own Boy for both audiences, most memorably when one interviewee gives a monologue of regret and outrage that goes beyond the biographical core of the film and speaks to a general fear and complacency she angrily claims is crippling America. It’s a statement about what happened to Swartz but also a statement about what happened to us, by way of a national loss and lack of knowledge of him and his leadership in the areas of technology and activism. The film’s foundation is in remembrance, but what it builds toward is a call for progress.
A single, somewhat minor issue with Knappenberger’s telling of Swartz’s story, especially for how the film is to do more than just look at a life now past, is in the way it sticks to a chronological structure, as if a timeline trajectory is suitable for a work dealing with greater aspects and significance of a person’s (and above his, our own) history. The problem comes late in the doc when the chapter on SOPA pops out like an isolated notch on that timeline taking place in the middle of his legal problems, coming off like an interruption of that narrative. I can see where people would complain about that being put ahead of the arrest in the film, as audiences do prefer chronology, but aside from how that would keep certain sections of his life more separate, I think it also would have made a great climactic peak for Swartz’s achievements to build up towards just before the crash of what would bring him down.
The Internet’s Own Boy is a strong celebration of its subject because it promotes his potential for an even greater legacy moving forward rather than closing the door where Swartz closed his own. For such an immediate biographical history, it’s impressively deep and packed as far as its understanding of what he has meant over the past decade and what his life and leadership could and likely will mean for decades ahead.
The Internet’s Own Boy is now in theaters and on VOD.