How do you put a person’s life on film? Does that change when the subject is beloved, or young, or recently deceased, or all three? Is the purpose of biography to ennoble or simply record?
Such questions hover fretfully in the shadows of “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz,” a documentary whose chief aims — at which it succeeds — are to mourn a fallen activist angel and rile audiences into rage. For many people, any other approach might seem blasphemous, and this, of course, is why one should be wary. It’s easy and emotionally satisfying to build a case for martyrdom. It’s harder and more necessary to step back for a bigger and less passionate picture.
Aaron Swartz was, of course, the computer programmer and electronic freedom fighter whose suicide at 26 in January 2013 came as the US government was preparing a case against him. His alleged crime: using MIT’s computer network to download millions of documents from JSTOR, a database of academic publications, with the aim of distributing them freely across the Net. His maximum potential punishment: $1 million in fines and 50 years in prison on two felony counts and 11 violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. He hung himself shortly after federal prosecutors turned down a second plea offer.
Swartz’s death galvanized the online and activist communities who see him as a fallen soldier in the struggle for open access and the democratic future of the Internet. Even the greater public was, to some extent, radicalized by coverage of Swartz’s persecution and death. It’s arguable whether the current firestorm over the FCC’s attempts to dismantle net neutrality would be quite so visible if Swartz hadn’t put a face on the larger issue.
Director Brian Knappenberger leads us through his subject’s short, initially charmed life from beginning to untimely end, starting with family videos of his toddler years that set an indulgently personal tone. We learn of Swartz’s pioneering efforts — in his early teens, no less — as co-creator of the Web news syndicator RSS and the water-cooler website Reddit. And we track his growing political disenchantment and commitment to change. “The Internet’s Own Boy” is deft at explaining knotty technical developments and it gives Swartz’s mentors like Lawrence Lessig and Tim Berners-Lee — people who’ve built our online universe and are intent on protecting it from centralized government control — ample room to state their case.
From the other side we don’t hear much of anything. Stephen Heymann, the US attorney who led the prosecution, is a Voldemort glimpsed only in grainy photographs. And forget about getting his boss, Carmen Ortiz, on record. Knappenberger has said in interviews that he repeatedly approached the other side and was rebuffed or ignored; in any event, the film is less interested in journalistic balance than in eulogy and advocacy.
Which is fine, but a more nuanced portrait of Swartz might have acknowledged, as some print reporting has done, that he had his darker side and depressions, and that the abilities that made him a genuine prodigy also set him apart from the world and made him ill at ease in certain situations. It might have pointed out that the idealism that fired his political zeal — and had real and critical results, such as the failure of 2013’s Stop Internet Piracy Act to pass in Congress — had its naive side, which he might have outgrown had he lived. And it might have conceded that, however draconian the government’s persecution may have been, it was Aaron Swartz’s decision to end his own life.
But Knappenberger can’t paint his subject as an imperfect human being because Swartz simply means too much to too many people right now. He’s a focal point for social and political change, with communal grief as its engine. “The Internet’s Own Boy” works very well on that score and easily convinces us of the enormous hole left by its subject’s passing. Of the two biographical documentaries opening in the Boston area today, the one about Gore Vidal presents a portrait of a rich, well-lived life that was. Knappenberger, by contrast, has the nearly impossible task of measuring a life that might have been.
“The Internet’s Own Boy” trailer: