*** (out of four)
First: How could anyone make a documentary in which the narrator constantly mispronounces the subject’s name?! In “The Internet’s Own Boy,” a well-organized doc about late Reddit co-creator and suburban Highland Park-raised Aaron Swartz, the narrator alternates between calling him “swortz” (correct) and “schwortz” (incorrect). That’s shocking and inexcusable.
In most other ways, writer/director Brian Knappenberger chooses wisely. Through interviews with Swartz’s family, friends and professional supporters, the filmmaker directly and convincingly captures the innovative developer—who at 12 conceived a version of Wikipedia before there was Wikipedia and last year took his own life at the age of 26 while facing multiple felony charges—as a brilliant advocate for change without canonizing him. As depicted here, Swartz eerily shares many Mark Zuckerberg-ian attributes, particularly in terms of social discomfort and a disinterest in the glamorous life.
It’s hard not to be inspired by Swartz’s priorities. He sought change for his vision of the greater good, a philosophy that led him to try to make costly online journal articles free and become an FBI target. Unfortunately, everyone on the other side of this story, from the government officials who advocated for Swartz’s prosecution to Swartz’s former Reddit colleagues to folks at MIT, declined participation in the film. That leaves Knappenberger with too much time filled with Swartz’s family repeating themselves. And the aforementioned pronunciation issue is so staggering that it deserves another mention.
This remains an important David vs. Goliath story, however, of a remarkable brain years ahead of his age with the courage and will to fight Congress—and a system built to impede, rather than encourage, progress and common sense. “The Internet’s Own Boy” will upset you. As it should.
Originally published during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival
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