Saturday, July 05, 2014

The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz

This is the part where I normally write "I skipped this at IFFBoston because I figured it would pop up at regular theaters later", but I actually didn't think that; I just had other stuff I wanted to watch that night. That the Somerville Theatre picked it up when they had five days to fill just meant I could give it a chance.

And despite the low-ish star-rating, it's actually well worth seeing. For all that I think it has trouble actually getting the audience inside Swartz's head during those last months, the ideas in it are worth hearing and presented well.

Anyway, I kind of wish I'd had this up written enough for this to a "dissent is patriotic" July 4th posting. I think the storm bumping the celebrations up a day in Boston helped bleed off a little of the militarism - no flyovers on the 3rd - and it's important to remember that Independence Day celebrates a document establishing principles more than the fighting to preserve them, so it's worth taking a moment to remember that the threats to those ideals are not always external.

The Internet's Own Boy

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 30 June 2014 in Somerville Theatre #4 (first-run, DCP)

It's a horribly clinical thing to say, but building a movie around someone who committed suicide requires even more care than other documentaries. It distorts the audience's perceptions and makes the filmmaker walk on eggshells, and in the case of The Internet's Own Boy, it leaves a big hole in how writer/director Brian Knappenberger tells an otherwise intriguing and important story.

Aaron Swartz, for those who don't recognize the name, was one of the people who helped shape the internet at the turn of the twenty-first century, helping to define the RSS protocol while still a teenager and then, dropping out of Stanford after a year, and starting one of the companies that would merge and become Reddit. The startup life was not for him, though, and he soon turned his attention to social justice, where he helped spearhead the campaign against the Stop Online Piracy Act. At around that time, an attempt to download the J-Stor database of academic journals escalated into a federal case that consumed him until he took his own life.

The most important thing a documentary can do is to present information clearly, and Knappenberger does that well. There are technical discussions and social issues that, because it's the twenty-first century and the internet, can have cause and effect be rather indirect and abstracted. Knappenger clearly has his sympathies with Swartz, and occasionally this causes him to throw some assumptions in with his explanations, but never to the point of making leaps that seem unreasonable.

Full review at EFC

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