By Daniel Barnes
*Opens today at The Roxie Theater in San Francisco.
Although Brian Knappenberger’s The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz rides the same tracks as most of the other activist documentaries reviewed for this site in recent weeks – Documented, Citizen Koch, etc. – it is slightly more successful in transcending its own earnestly one-sided rhetoric. That is largely due to the fact that Knappenberger makes at least a token attempt to develop his central character beyond his symbolic value, even if that personal touch is undermined by a parade of interviewees solely concerned with ripping apart straw men. Apart from a handful of touching moments and unsettling implications, this is once again a total he said/he said affair.
An “alpha nerd” since birth, Aaron Swartz was barely potty-trained by the time he emerged as a computer prodigy, and became a millionaire co-founder of Reddit before he was able to legally purchase alcohol. Never able to comfortably exist in the corporate world, Swartz dropped out and became a fierce advocate for public domain and open-source Internet issues, and was a key player in rallying against the draconian PIPA/SOPA laws that were proposed in 2010.
However, Swartz’s unquestionable genius and political activism frequently crossed over into arrogance, and when he hacked into both federal court records and the MIT mainframe to research and protest the inaccessibility of public records, the government decided to make an example of him. The Secret Service, given new latitude to prosecute computer crimes by the PATRIOT Act, brought the hammer down with “prosecutorial zeal,” absurdly charging him with violation of an archaic law that was created in paranoid response to the Matthew Broderick movie War Games.
After mounting a long and costly legal defense that sent Swartz spiraling further and further into depression, he committed suicide shortly before his trial was set to begin. Far from suggesting any non-political factors in Swartz’s death, Knappenberger and his interviewees cast about for monolithic villains, and to quote Kent Brockman, they place much of the blame squarely on YOU, THE AUDIENCE. Even the ex-girlfriend whose testimony formed a big chunk of the prosecution’s case blames “the culture” that allowed her treachery to occur. The Internet’s Own Boy is worth watching for the opportunity to meet an incomparably intelligent, sensitively ambitious, and unusually admirable man in Aaron Swartz. Just know that he still deserves better.