New documentaries view the American experience from a variety of vantage points.
Were he still living, the late computer genius and Internet “hacktivist” Aaron Swartz would surely be siding with recent critics of the Federal Communications Commission, whose moves toward the creation of a two-tiered Web could allow the likes of Netflix to pay for privileged access to bandwidth.
All but impossible to summarize neatly, the complicated debate over net neutrality at least adds unequivocally to the timeliness of “The Internet’s Own Boy,” a thought-provoking biographical documentary that characterizes Swartz as a radical proponent of public access to info shrewdly monetized by corporations. (Amazon is selling “Boy” downloads in HD for $19.99, with rentals starting at $6.99.)
Justly acclaimed at Sundance, the film follows Swartz from early childhood, Mac Plus mouse in hand, through his precocious preteen years as an Internet visionary to his impassioned political crusades and untimely death at age 26 in 2013. Where others employ technology for profit, Swartz sought to use it as a tool of social justice — but not without controversy and dire consequence.
In 2011, federal prosecutors brought charges against Swartz that carried a maximum penalty of 35 years in prison. Essentially, his crime was conspiring to make knowledge public — surreptitiously downloading reams of academic journal articles from the corporate digital library JSTOR with the intention of sharing them with non-academics online.
Director Brian Knappenberger’s chief asset here is a two-decade span of footage that captures in indelible detail the evolution of young Swartz’s beautiful mind. In the end, the film’s great tragedy is that of an adorably bright and inquisitive toddler who, believing in freedom from his first mouse click, eventually came upon a grown-up operating system he couldn’t reprogram.
Also new to VOD
While summer is blockbuster time at the multiplex, the hot months have tended to favor nonfiction on VOD. Among many new documentaries available for streaming is “Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger,” director Joe Berlinger’s disturbing study of the notorious Boston crime boss’ criminal prosecution after decades of serving as an evidently well-protected FBI informant.
As much as “The Internet’s Own Boy,” “Whitey” convincingly characterizes U.S. democracy as malleable by forces bent on turning it to their advantage. Berlinger, who codirected the “Paradise Lost” trilogy of docs about the wrongful imprisonment of the West Memphis Three, continues to prove his skill at burrowing into the dirty details of a criminal case to uncover all manner of slithering characters and institutional rot.
Our own Rep. Michele Bachmann headlines “Caucus,” AJ Schnack’s effortlessly riveting verité portrait of Republican presidential hopefuls in Iowa. A rare nonpartisan entry in the field of campaign trail documentaries, the film captures the Minnesota congresswoman’s Ames Straw Poll victory three years ago and subsequent loss of the GOP nod to Mitt Romney. Blessed with Bachmann, Rick Santorum and a half-dozen other pols as protagonists, Schnack lets his subjects speak for themselves to priceless effect.
Even talkier, “My America,” which Fandor has been streaming since July 4, features 21 monologues penned by leading playwrights Danny Hoch, Dan Dietz, Marcus Gardley and others. Filmed by indie stalwart Hal Hartley (“The Unbelievable Truth”) and delivered by various actors, including Hartley’s frequent collaborator Thomas Jay Ryan, the politically themed speeches run the gamut from patriotism to protest.
Send questions or comments to Rob Nelson at VODcolumn@gmail.com.