Friday, May 2, 2014

Review: The Internet's Own Boy

Aaron Swartz locks his eyes right onto you at the start of The Internet's Own Boy, the documentary by Brian Knappenberger now on the film festival circuit. I saw it last night at the Montclair Film Festival, where it was received enthusiastically.

The Aaron Swartz story says so much about the times we live in (and in the smallish world of techies I've inhabited for the last 20 years). I'm happy that the story has found such an effective telling.

Knappenberger's film invites you to look into a lot of eyes, to swim in a variety of gazes. You can't help but to try to understand and assess these people, face to face. Knappenberger's friendly camera work lets you look at people as you never would in real life; the people and the eyes speak for themselves.

Swartz's family are the beams and girders of this film. Starting with the home video of Aaron and his brothers as children, we are invited into the Swartz home as old friends. Aaron's brothers, Noah and Ben, provide the voice and tone of the film, which is surprisingly upbeat and full of love. But the ice in Aaron's eyes is alive in both brothers and it's easy to hear Aaron in their voices.

The eyes of Aaron's lawyer are soft and weary, his father's eyes are sad. Cory Doctorow, Brewster Kahle, Tim Berners-Lee and Carl Malamud provide twinkles of outrage. Lawrence Lessig never quite looks at us. The eyes of three women in Aaron's life provide the most memorable moments of the film. At one moment Quinn Norton's eyes become round with a fury you've never seen outside a comic book. Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman's slightly asymmetrical eyes convey wisdom and compel action. And Susan Swartz's teary eyes, on a face with such a strong resemblance to Aaron's, just break your heart.

The technical narrative of the film is deft and accurate. A non-techy friend I saw the movie with found the issues easy to understand. I found it interesting that the audience gasped occasionally at things I knew, for example, plugging the laptop into router in the networking closet. And at Aaron's download of Westlaw when he was a student at Stanford.

And if you pay attention, I'm on screen for ALMOST TWO SECONDS.

The film gets to theaters and Streaming sites on June 27rd. There will also be a Creative Commons licensed version (CC BY-NC-SA). Not the theatrical version though, presumably because of video and/or music clips that can't be released into the commons for licensing reasons. You won't have an excuse not to see that one. And when you see it, Aaron will be staring at you. And then what will you do?

Here's the trailer:

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  1. Nicely done, Eric. You might want to revisit that last paragraph, though.