The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz
Directed by Brian Knappenberger
Programming prodigy and information activist Aaron Swartz achieved groundbreaking work in social justice and political organizing. His passion for open access ensnared him in a legal nightmare that ended with the taking of his own life at the age of 26.
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★★★★ review by Harry Ridgway on Letterboxd
My main objective while watching this documentary was to form an opinion, not be suckered into one by any endearing sentimentality or passionate talking heads. Lately I've become conscious of this, and have actually had to revaluate my stance on a few things after realizing my vulnerability to be swayed by an enthusiastic film or documentary. But...I think I may have been swayed once more, as The Internet's Own Boy is a tragic, important, inspirational and influential documentary that captivatingly outlines the American government's naivety regarding the internet.
The film's initial focal point is Aaron Swartz - the extraordinary child coding prodigy who expelled creative ideas at a rate that seemed unparalleled. Looking at his early life, it really is astonishing how preternatural his intellect was and this instils the notion that we are looking at what could have been one of the most significant voices of the 21st century. His ideas, the drive to learn and shape the world for the better is tenderly relayed to us by simple yet telling interviews with his family and colleagues. What is said here not only makes the film's conclusion all the more demoralizing, but powerfully emphasizes the tragedy of Swartz's conclusion too.
So far it seemed like a fascinating character study, but director Brian Knappenberger swiftly broadens the scope and begins to delineate what Swartz fought so hard against in his lifetime. Also under the magnifying glass is the various prosecutions Swartz faced, and these two cruxes grippingly intertwine to not only paint a tempestuous picture of Swartz's battle, but asserts a rousing criticism of America's justice system.
This is where my inner confliction manifested. Do I believe every word said here or is there more to it that has been excluded? Because on the one hand, it is certainly a one-sided account as there are numerous interviews with Swartz's combatants and next to none with any opposition. But on the other hand, I think that the laws regarding the free speech on the internet and so forth are so inherently wrong that there is no counter-argument. I mean, the internet is obviously a fickle thing to manage, but as the film incessantly points out - no one is getting physically hurt by free speech on the internet, so why spend so much time dealing with something less perilous than the government should be?
I'm quite unversed on the topic as you might be able to tell, so I'm basically forming my opinion on the fly while writing this. But fundamentally, as of right now and with the information I have, I believe Swartz's viewpoint was correct, and the treatment of Swartz by the U.S government was very wrong.
So, what placed Swartz in a criminal spotlight? After so much fuss, a threatened sentence of 35 years in jail, what massive hack did Swartz conduct? As it turns out, the crime he apparently committed could not be more trivial and this is where the first realization of how skewed the U.S government's view on hacking, the internet etc. is. I won't reveal it, because the films fluid unearthing of it is even more gripping if blind.
But, yeah, that's the politics of it all and I suppose a review for a film like this must unavoidably become an avenue to express your opinion on the matter. But to speak to the actual film for a moment, it's extremely well modulated. There isn't any intrusive elements (save for a sporadically overbearing score) that distracts from the tale, and the editing is so slick and smooth that you forget that it was edited in the first place. It just feels like an incredibly fluid journey that has a clear timeline that's neatly trimmed with little filibustering.
Yes, it's an utterly tragic tale of a great, innovate mind of the modern day subjected to unfair scrutiny that eventually drove him to suicide. But as I said at the beginning, and as repeatedly said about Swartz himself, it is optimistic. The film shows the flaws, and then shows the zealous protestors who have become inspired by Swartz's drive. It also speaks about how there are other prodigies out there who will soon make a huge difference in the world. This is emphasized in a scene towards the end that depicts a 14 year old child who is making striking progress in finding a cure for prostate cancer. This part says that, yes, Swartz's death was a huge loss, but there are still some great minds out in the world ready to make a difference.
★★★★ review by Ben Gordon on Letterboxd
Aaron Swartz believed that he could change the world for the better - not through wealth or prestige, but through access. He set out to prove the limitations of bureaucracy on the internet, but was disproportionately punished for doing so. Before he was convicted of any real criminal behaviour, he took his own life.
This is a story imbued with tragedy, but the documentary is not without the brighter, more optimistic shades of Aaron Swartz's worldview. We see his developing inquiry from a very young age, as well as the effects of his personal relationships and subsequent political victories.
Swartz was made an example of by the United States government. This film also positions him as a representative figure, but more so one who was unfairly wrung through the flaws of a nonsensical legal system and the passivity of academic administrators. It succeeds in collating Swartz's life and mission with the bigger picture of American technological and political freedoms. It is a powerful movie.
★★★½ review by Raul Marques on Letterboxd
An efficient documentary on a contemporary martyr that played a big role in freedom-of-speech activism. Given the theme, it's clear, and necessary, that this kind of film call on its viewers for action. Considering that, my main complaint is that the movie uses over the top music to achieve emotional impact and gets a little too preachy over the subject. Even being a doc, I think it resembles the highly criticized oscar-baity biopics The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game.
★★★★ review by Matt on Letterboxd
Well-made, thought provoking and depressing documentary about how we end up destroying some of our generation's best minds and promising leaders to make examples out of them. The documentary is a tad one-sided but the subject matter is compelling and well-researched and ultimately sad about the life of what undoubtedly was a child prodigy.
★★★★ review by Brandon Hart on Letterboxd
I never know how to review documentaries, seeing as there's not necessarily cinematography (generally), acting, or other things you'd find in a fictional cinematic film. But, I'll try.
This is a nicely composed and interesting documentary, using the subject of Aaron Swartz as a way to inform the viewer of the injustice present in our government. Some are things plenty of us already know, but even those are elaborated further upon. It's also majorly inspiring, and a testament to creation.
That's as much as I can muster.
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