Film Reviews

REVIEW: Deep Web

Hot Docs 2015

USA, 90 min.
Directed by Alex Winter
International Premiere

Although director and actor Alex Winter has reinvented himself several times over since his onscreen debut in the 1980s, his best known role remains that of Bill S. Preston in the cult favourite Bill and Ted comedies. Having directed features, commercials, and music videos over the past few decades, Winter has recently reemerged as a vital journalistic voice with a mission to document important historical movements and trends of the Internet age.

His 2013 documentary Downloaded, a look at the founding of file sharing site Napster, functions as a nice precursor to his latest film, the meticulously researched, impartial, and prescient Deep Web. While Downloaded entertainingly looked at a watershed moment in the history of the online world, Deep Web has an eye cast firmly upon the problematic future of national security.

Winter delves into the infamous history of Silk Road, a controversial, online black market tucked away not-so-secretly in the “dark web,” that amassed over $1.2 billion dollars in revenue before being shut down by an FBI task force. Founded by an ever-changing band of “crypto-anarchists,” one of the main goals of Silk Road, a venture based deeply in Libertarian economic theory and leftist social ideals, was to reduce violence and harm within the drug trade. Everything from marijuana to heroin was available to users, making it patently illegal around the world, but many in local law enforcement were able to see the obvious benefits of letting buyers make transactions safely at home without the danger posed by operating on street corners.

While the business model was certainly problematic, Winter chooses not to moralize on the decisions of Silk Road traders, but instead looks at the far more interesting case of 24-year-old Ross Ulbricht. A former physics engineer and bookseller, Ulbricht was arrested after being identified as “Dread Pirate Roberts,” the moniker passed down among the chief moderators of Silk Road. While more than one person used the handle (gleaned from a clever reference to William Goldman’s The Princess Bride), Ulbricht became the focal point of all government efforts to bring down the marketplace, and unfortunately the focus of sensationalized news coverage that only looked at the facts the government was letting the public in on.

No matter one’s thoughts on the current state of the war on drugs in America, Winter makes the core question of his thesis loudly and proudly: Can the United States government willfully break with the fourth amendment to illegally obtain and skew evidence in online criminal investigations? Using the same unwarranted, deceptive hacking techniques as the people they are trying to stop, the government has made a case against an obvious patsy that both doesn’t make any sense, and yet inexplicably still holds up in court. Even those who don’t agree with Silk Road’s cyberpunk ethos will find the facts presented by Winter incendiary and hard to ignore. It’s a tragic, morally complex call to action and awareness.

Hot Docs 2015 Screenings
Thu, Apr 30 9:00 PM
Kingsway Theatre

Click here for more of POV’s coverage of the 2015 Hot Docs Festival!

Andrew Parker is almost a twenty year veteran when it comes to film criticism. Previously, he was the Film and Performing Arts Editor for the website Dork Shelf, and his work has appeared in NOW Magazine, The Boston Globe, t.o. night, Exclaim, Reader’s Digest, The Onion AV Club, and plenty of other places that you probably have/haven’t heard of. He also occasionally pops up on TV, but blink and you might miss him. Raised in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, he has called Toronto home for the past decade.

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