Film Reviews

REVIEW: The Internet’s Own Boy - The Story of Aaron Swartz

Hot Docs 2014

The Internet’s Own Boy – The Story of Aaron Swartz
USA, 105 min.
Directed by Brian Knappenberger
Special Events (International Premiere)

Hot Docs 2014’s opening film, The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz depicts the computer programming genius who dreamt up important Internet innovations while in his teens. These included significant work on RSS codes, which allow us to access online music, read blogs, and so on. Swartz also worked on Creative Commons, among many other influential projects.

Bored with the tech industry, Swartz became an online and in-person activist, arguing for unlimited access to information on the web. When he illegally downloaded numerous scholarly articles from the online library JSTOR, a federal prosecutor went after him relentlessly. Swartz faced being locked up for 35 years and fined $1 million even though JSTOR did not want to press charges. He could have escaped doing time by pleading guilty to felonies, but copping a plea would stain his reputation. Unable to extricate himself from this Kafkaesque nightmare, he hung himself in January 2013.

Swartz’s childhood was registered on video. In one telling moment, we see him dressed up for Halloween as a computer. Knappenberger’s copious use of home movies showing Swartz’s early brilliance, playfulness, and delight in his own intellect give the film an intimacy it would otherwise lack. The whiz kid who clearly prioritized digital code and making speeches over human passion did seem to get sexier with age and was close to women who were clearly moved by him.

While this efficiently assembled doc deals with issues central to our lives online and builds to the tragic and completely unnecessary death of an exceptional young man, I couldn’t entirely connect with it. At times, you feel almost pummelled by Knappenberger’s barrage of talking heads, television news clips, and one of those annoyingly insistent minimalist scores that tries to channel Phillip Glass. In this overly expository film, there are few moments of poetic visual intensity outside of the home movie footage. Scenes of girlfriends and colleagues getting tearful near the end of the picture feel forced even though these are real people lamenting the fate of someone they loved deeply.

Visit POV’s Hot Docs Hub for more reviews and features on the 2014 festival.

Maurie Alioff writes about movies for publications off- and on-line, and is a screenwriter currently collaborating on a documentary featuring Bob Marley’s granddaughter while researching other Jamaica-related projects, including a magical-realist crime story drawing on stories he hears on the island. He has written for radio, journals and TV, taught screenwriting and been a contributing editor to various magazines.

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