Alex Winter takes us on an excellent adventure into the world of the dark net.
Leading on from numerous documentaries being released in relation to internet privacy, government surveillance and the way technology and crime are interrelating (see my review of Citizenfour) we are given another facet of this new landscape as Deep Web delves into the highly criminal world of the Silk Road and its alleged founder and head Ross Ulbricht as he faces trial for a range of supposed crimes. We are given the story mainly through the interactions of Wired writer Andy Greenberg who worked with director Alex Winter on the project as he retells his interactions with and impressions of the Silk Road and criminal case against Ross Ulbricht.
Once more its hard to decipher a plot for the documentary, but Winter has done a good job in laying out the history of internet anonymity from the Cypherpunks of the 1990’s through the creation of the Silk Road, its main operations, arguments for and against it and its current state. Running at the same time we get the story of Ross Ulbricht who is implicated directly as the ringleader for Silk Road, operating under the alias of Dread Pirate Roberts. We are also given talking head based arguments for and again free market interaction like Silk Road in relation to control, privacy, violent crime and much more. Deep Web acts to take the uninitiated and have them competent on the issue, unfortunately this does make some of the narrative disjointed as certain concepts are extrapolated upon, but the film never loses its overall focus and maintains a strong message.
A common theme seems to run through documentaries about cyber celebrities and new content and that is one of crime and punishment. We are shown Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, Aaron Swartz, many ringleaders of Anonymous and now Ross Ulbricht as they are hunted for their crimes or freedom of information breaches. Commonly we are shown the protagonist as the Che Guevara freedom fighter, using the new medium to expose and teach the old guard. In Deep Web we are shown the seedy underbelly of Silk Road as well. We are treated to a discussion of drug trafficking and while there is an argument for its legalisation based upon violent crime statistics, it is an undeniably illegal activity which the Silk Road was facilitating. While Ross is questioned as the controlling party in Silk Road, it is hinted that Silk Road is in itself a criminal concept and while it stands for freedom of identity and trade, that its current role in the marketplace has a decidedly nasty edge.
Obviously when constructing a documentary it is important to remain impartial and Winter has done well to take talking heads from both sides of the argument, but the film does still have a left swing that sympathises and provides more justification for the liberation of Ulbricht as well as the freedom to run sites like Silk Road while also dismantling organisations like the NSA. While this sits in line with my own politics, i am still waiting for a straight down the line documentary that will provide counterpoints and not attempt to play a David and Goliath game with our suggested destiny.
The technical side of the film is more than competent. We are given well paced segments and critical analysis from respected and relevant figures in the scene and case against Ulbricht The editing is clean with details given room to breathe, Keanu Reeves sporadic narration being supported by news reports and reimagined email chains. Leading on from his previous documentary Downloaded which dealt with Napster and the rise of pirate culture, Winter has stepped out of his Excellent Adventure history and started to establish himself as a serious documentarian. He brings a pessimistic tone appropriate to the material while also placing in notes of hope lead with sweeping monologues from Amir Taaki that open and litter the film. Winter doesn’t have the answer, he isn’t suggesting a specific course of action, but instead is perhaps providing the tools for the audience to create their own answers.
Deep Web is a film of merit, its subject matter will becomes more and more critical and the film takes a slightly wider view than some others, dealing specifically with the usage of the internet for negative and positive purposes. While the future of the Silk Road, dark web and government surveillance is still unknown, Deep Web is a good introduction for the uninitiated to understand what is happening below their noses.