×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Sundance Film Review: ‘The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz’

A spellbinding portrait of the Internet whiz kid's life and political convictions, which were cut short by his suicide in early 2013.

With:

Robert Swartz, Ben Swartz, Noah Swartz, Susan Swartz, Quinn Norton, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, Cory Doctorow, Lawrence Lessig, Tim Berners-Lee.

A moving memorial to Internet whiz kid Aaron Swartz, “The Internet’s Own Boy” may be the most emotionally devastating movie ever made about hacking and freedom of information. Documentarian Brian Knappenberger creates a spellbinding portrait of Swartz’s life and political convictions — the promise of which was cut short by his suicide in early 2013 at the age of 26 — while posing powerful intellectual arguments about failures in the U.S. justice system, especially when it comes to the World Wide Web. Since Swartz has already been canonized online, there’s likely a substantial audience ready and waiting for a well-crafted tribute doc. The more salient question in the age of Internet piracy may be whether they’re willing to pay to watch it.

The circumstances surrounding Swartz’s death remain shrouded in a degree of mystery, but the political activist and co-founder of social news site Reddit hung himself just two days after federal prosecutors declined a plea bargain from Swartz’s defense attorney in an ongoing case. Swartz was charged with 11 violations of the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for mass-downloading millions of documents from JSTOR, a subscription-based digital library of academic journals and materials, by plugging a laptop directly into MIT’s network. If convicted, he would have faced up to 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine.

Whether or not Swartz’s crimes merited such intense scrutiny from the Justice Dept. is one of the film’s hot topics, and there’s no doubt where Knappenberger’s allegiances lie. His film builds a credible argument that the case against Swartz was more about deterrence than punishment. The goal was to send a message to hacktivists everywhere, who — at the time of WikiLeaks and the explosion of Anonymous — were becoming a growing concern for the government. Swartz’s crimes were dubious, no one even knows what he actually intended to do with the documents he was downloading, and JSTOR ultimately dropped the charges against him. But the government pressed on. What the prosecutors surely never expected was that rather than becoming a cautionary tale, Swartz’s death would transform him into a martyr for a cause and a symbol of the fight for free information in the digital age.

Through a mix of talking-head interviews and archival footage, Knappenberger gives audiences an accessible but never tedious primer on Swartz’s major tech accomplishments, while irresistible homevideos reveal his auspicious beginnings as a child prodigy (he started using a computer at age 2 or 3). But the most powerful takeaways involve what Swartz was fighting for and how he was fighting for it. Swartz had the ideas and the ingenuity to become another tech billionaire, but he committed himself instead to the causes of social justice, freedom of information and the fight for transparency in government. Multiple TV news interviews from before his death demonstrate Swartz’s ability to speak eloquently on the intersection of politics and technology, and several interview subjects — including an ex-girlfriend — believe he might have eventually pursued a political career.

While the film borders on hagiography, we get a small sense of Swartz’s inner demons and his lifelong feeling of being a social outcast. The closest anyone comes to criticism is when one of his brothers calls him a “twerp,” but the celebration of what Swartz accomplished never feels forced or inauthentic. Instead, “The Internet’s Own Boy” is a beautifully crafted film that opens a window on a world not everyone has entered yet, and exposes ways in which both the legal system and the U.S. government is lagging hopelessly behind technology.

Sundance Film Review: 'The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 20, 2014. Running time: 104 MIN.

Production:

A Luminent Media production. Executive producers, Brian Knappenberger, Charlie Annenberg, Zach Braff, Mason Fink, Aaron Greenspan, Greg Kidd.

Crew:

Directed, written by Brian Knappenberger. Camera (color, HD), Lincoln Else, Scott Sinkler; editors, Bryan Storkel, Michelle Witten, Andy Robertson, Jason Decker, Knappenberger; music, John Dragonetti; sound, Marianna LaFollette, Nathan Tisdale; re-recording mixer, Nathan Smith; associate producers, Suzanne Danziger, Denise Gaberman, Jeffrey Kanjanapangka, Clementine Leger.

With:

Robert Swartz, Ben Swartz, Noah Swartz, Susan Swartz, Quinn Norton, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, Cory Doctorow, Lawrence Lessig, Tim Berners-Lee.

More Film

  • FX's 'Snowfall' Panel TCA Winter Press

    John Singleton Hospitalized After Suffering Stroke

    UPDATED with statements from John Singleton’s family and FX Networks John Singleton, the Oscar nominated director and writer of “Boyz N’ the Hood,” has suffered a stroke. Sources confirm to Variety that Singleton checked himself into the hospital earlier this week after experiencing pain in his leg. The stroke has been characterized by doctors as [...]

  • 'Curse of La Llorona' Leads Slow

    'Curse of La Llorona' Leads Slow Easter Weekend at the Box Office

    New Line’s horror pic “The Curse of La Llorona” will summon a solid $25 million debut at the domestic box office, leading a quiet Easter weekend before Marvel’s “Avengers: Endgame” hits theaters on April 26. The James Wan-produced “La Llorona,” playing in 3,372 theaters, was a hit with hispanic audiences, who accounted for nearly 50% [...]

  • Jim Jarmusch in 'Carmine Street Guitars'

    Film Review: 'Carmine Street Guitars'

    “Carmine Street Guitars” is a one-of-a-kind documentary that exudes a gentle, homespun magic. It’s a no-fuss, 80-minute-long portrait of Rick Kelly, who builds and sells custom guitars out of a modest storefront on Carmine Street in New York’s Greenwich Village, and the film touches on obsessions that have been popping up, like fragrant weeds, in [...]

  • Missing Link Laika Studios

    ‘Missing Link’ Again Tops Studios’ TV Ad Spending

    In this week’s edition of the Variety Movie Commercial Tracker, powered by the TV ad measurement and attribution company iSpot.tv, Annapurna Pictures claims the top spot in spending for the second week in a row with “Missing Link.” Ads placed for the animated film had an estimated media value of $5.91 million through Sunday for [...]

  • Little Woods

    Film Review: 'Little Woods'

    So much of the recent political debate has focused on the United States’ southern border, and on the threat of illegal drugs and criminals filtering up through Mexico. But what of the north, where Americans traffic opiates and prescription pills from Canada across a border that runs nearly three times as long? “Little Woods” opens [...]

  • Beyonce's Netflix Deal Worth a Whopping

    Beyonce's Netflix Deal Worth a Whopping $60 Million (EXCLUSIVE)

    Netflix has become a destination for television visionaries like Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy, with deals worth $100 million and $250 million, respectively, and top comedians like Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle ($40 million and $60 million, respectively). The streaming giant, which just announced it’s added nearly 10 million subscribers in Q1, is honing in [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content