City Paper is not for tourists
The tragic life of dotcom wunderkind and free-information hacktivist Aaron Swartz gets the Participant Media treatment in this often stirring, if broad, documentary. After a runthrough of Swartz’s flabbergasting résumé—he helped create RSS feeds and Creative Commons as a teenager, then co-founded Reddit and became a millionaire at 20—writer/director Brian Knappenberger centers most of the film on his subject’s battles with the U.S. government. Swartz’s crime, according to the feds? He downloaded millions of academic articles from research database JSTOR. Swartz’s treatment at the hands of authorities, who sought 35 years in prison, is infuriating: Why lump him into the same bad-apple bin as hackers who are actually out to cause damage? Knappenberger is shallow on Swartz’s personal details, and he seems willing to blame prosecutors for his subject’s 2013 suicide (which feels too simple). But the film manages several great sequences of policy victories Swartz helped along, including the 2012 protests that kept Congress from passing the Stop Online Piracy Act. When Wikipedia goes dark as part of a demonstration, it’s hard not to cheer.