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Review: The only thing not veiled in ‘Deep Web’ is its agenda (Includes first-hand account)

Much like a city has a seedy underbelly, the Internet is home to an array of back alley dealings. It serves as the perfect marketplace for secret and illegal transactions, offering anonymity and opportunity for unlimited growth. However this type of business isn’t conducted on the public or surface network; it happens on a hidden level that requires special access and is constructed specifically to provide protections to its users. It’s called the Deep Web, which is also the title of a documentary that explores this mysterious realm and the persecution of a young man who harnessed its power.

Though part of its subject is steeped in technicality, the director Alex Winter breaks it down so anyone can understand how this network operates. Using visuals and layman’s terms, the film illustrates the legitimate and unlawful uses of this underground segment of the Internet. Though the legal uses are identified, they are not the subject of the documentary. The main focus is on an undisclosed website called “Silk Road,” which is used to traffic illegal narcotics. Much like eBay or Amazon, sellers post their product on the site and buyers purchase it using Bitcoin. Naturally the American government’s war on drugs turned its attention to Silk Road and its facilitator, known by the moniker Dread Pirate Roberts (DPR). Enter Ross Ulbricht. He was arrested and charged with various offenses, including money laundering, fraud and murder-for-hire after being identified by authorities as DPR.

This documentary takes on a lot of issues that all stem from this black market website. One part addresses the existence of this clandestine, virtual space and the philosophy that accompanies it, regarding open source and political freedom. Silk Road is not simply a place to buy and sell drugs, but its users also advocate for safe and responsible consumption, and the autonomy to act without the authorities governing what they deem personal choices. On a related note, filmmakers talk to officials who believe taking drugs off the street in this manner could reduce the amount of street violence connected to the trade since eliminating illegal commerce entirely is impossible.

Much of the second half of the film explores Ulbricht’s prosecution and the possible injustices that occurred throughout his trial. Speaking with journalists who covered the hearing, his lawyer, family and friends, and agents involved in the case, Winter tries to wade through the apparently insufficient evidence used to sentence Ulbricht. Some of the key points include the prospect of more than one person using the DPR administrator account and the limitations placed on Ulbricht’s defense during the proceedings. Without the other side of the story, it’s easy to conclude he was railroaded and never stood a chance in court.

Keanu Reeves’ narration of the documentary is sober and informative. Even though it’s primarily used to advance the filmmaker’s objective and guide the story in the desired direction, it is seamlessly incorporated into the picture so that you often forget the voiceover is external to the events on the screen. It’s a lot like watching an extended version of an investigative television program that combs through the facts of a case by employing an omniscient narrator. Combined with a number of talking heads (some of which are concealed) and appealing graphics, this film provides an interesting perspective on a topic otherwise obscured from the light of day.

Director: Alex Winter

Written By

Sarah Gopaul is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for film news, a member of the Online Film Critics Society and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer-approved critic.

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