TMN Movie Review: "The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz"

Photo Credit: FilmBuff

Rating: NR
Length: 120 minutes
Release Date: June 27, 2014
Directed by: Brian Knappenberger
Genre: Documentary / True Crime / Biographical Film

At only 26 years old, Aaron Swartz was found dead in his Brooklyn apartment in January 2013. About a year later, Brian Knappenberger released "The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz," a documentary that seeks to spread the tale of a young man who influenced and shaped the Internet. Following an overarching theme of independence, "The Internet's Own Boy" chronicles Swartz's childhood, his sometimes difficult interpersonal relationships and his ongoing legal battles with the U.S. government.

Comprised primarily of interviews with friends, family, lovers, mentors and colleagues, "The Internet's Own Boy" serves as a memorial to the life of a child prodigy, starting with rare glimpses into his toddler years and following his progression into adolescence and adulthood. Most striking is a scene where the 3-year-old Swartz reads out loud. By opening his documentary in such a way, Knappenberger creates a personal draw between Swartz and the audience, encouraging admiration for his early genius and pathos for his tragic end. Interviews include reactions from family and friends as they learned of his death, inviting viewers to feel an echo of their pain and loss. Swartz, Knappenberger suggests, is a rare star that burned too brightly and too quickly, all the more tragic for his shortened life.

And who was the culprit? Knappenberger points the finger of blame squarely at the government for cornering Swartz, who after a two-year legal battle was facing financial ruin and jail time. Swartz's parents have publicly criticized the government, while interviewees largely agree that the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act that Swartz violated is outdated.

The timing of the documentary's release couldn't be better. Swartz's arguments and influences can still clearly be heard in the ongoing fight for net neutrality. Arguably, net neutrality might not be as visible a topic without Swartz's actions. The title of the documentary alludes to Swartz's martyrdom. His suicide triggered an outpouring of media coverage and criticism of the prosecution and government. Swartz eventually received a posthumous award for his advocacy of free information access. Notably, the editor and editorial board of the Journal of Library Administration jointly resigned, citing Swartz's suicide as an influence in their decisions. Eva Vivalt of the World Bank posted her articles online as a tribute to Swartz. Princeton University awarded scholarships in his name. Members of the Anonymous hacking group replaced MIT sites with tributes to the man's life, using his death as a way of rallying others to their cause. Swartz's death has had ramifications across the Internet that the American public is still feeling, net neutrality being only the most recent.

However, "The Internet's Own Boy" seems to lack the objective eye of the true documentary. Instead, it eulogizes an electronic freedom fighter. Swartz's portrayal is not as nuanced as it should be and falls somewhat flatter for it. Not every figure in Swartz's life has agreed to be interviewed. Prosecutor Stephen Heymann is depicted as a monstrous villain with a vendetta against the hero. Swartz's genius had its dark side but mention of it is almost entirely absent from the documentary. The documentary presents interviewers as glowing with admiration for an extraordinary man. However, it only briefly touches upon the most troubling reason that Swartz's legal battles received so much scrutiny when others' have not: Swartz was white.

While Swartz was indeed exceptional, without honest criticism or skepticism of the man's life and crimes, "The Internet's Own Boy" functions as little more than a reassertion of Swartz's genius and achievements, railing against a paranoid post-WikiLeaks government. But it may also simply be too soon. The timeliness of the documentary might be its great strength and draw, but Swartz is too near and dear to the heart of the grieving Internet for a movie to offer any sort of critical insight into his life.

Although "The Internet's Own Boy" is labeled as a documentary, it's more accurately described as a call to action against the government and policies that influenced Aaron Swartz to end his own life. It lifts Swartz up as the face of the net neutrality movement, and while Swartz may not have protested this — he was vehemently against SOPA, an antipiracy bill that faced severe Internet opposition, and prioritized freedom of information over accruing wealth — the documentary only does so by erasing any flaws that fail to conform to its image of an Internet saint. Regardless, "The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz" does an excellent job of bringing to life the compelling story of a man destroyed by his own idealism.