An image from the documentary Deep Web, directed by Alex Winter

Deep Web, directed by Alex Winter.

If you ever watched House of Cards and were as riveted as I by the young skinny, hipster hacker character who looks like a member of the band The National and sits in the dark drinking wine and cracking code, and if you also thought, “I wish they’d make a movie about that guy,” then here’s your movie. Deep Web is about the case of Ross Ulbricht, a young skinny hacker character who happens to also be a real person who apparently ran The Silk Road, the black market online site that trafficked in drugs and other illegalities.

The film was directed by Alex Winter, who knows drama. He’s most famous for being Bill in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, opposite Keanu Reeves, and he since made a career as an actor and director of middling narrative fare. But he’s starting to distinguish himself as a most excellent documentary director, after his debut, 2013’s Downloaded, and now the Epix release, airing on May 31, Deep Web.

If it seems random that Winter has taken this on, it’s not. That’s just our (OK, my) shortsighted presumptions about actors. Winter has actually been interested in online communities for more than two decades. I sat down with him in Toronto during the Hot Docs film festival and he impressed me with his sincerity and acumen on a subject that he’s been researching for a while. He says he’s been able to encrypt emails since the 1990s and has been fascinated by online subcultures from a sociological perspective.

I think he brings something unique — a subtle understanding of the power of narrative truth-telling to nonfiction filmmaking — and he doesn’t shy away from the sometimes gnarly overlap. In fact, he has fun with it. He did, after all, ask his pal Reeves to narrate Deep Web, although he cracks that this shouldn’t be called a Bill and Ted reunion. “Bill and Ted are technophobes,” he says.

Any fan of The Matrix will get goosebumps when hearing Reeves’ voice relay the real-life matrix, as it were, that lies behind the Internet. The impact is an unspoken blending of the fictional and nonfictional depictions of a future world that we are slowly slipping into. It dovetails well with the proclivities of the denizens of the deep web who love sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick. According to Winter, two of Ulbricht’s favorite films are A Scanner Darkly (based on writing by Dick) and The Matrix — both starring Reeves.

Winter says that the new generation of tech activist, also known as cypherpunks, have snark yet a levity to them. That explains how they can act out with such drama when there is much at stake.  For instance, the head of The Silk Road went by the pseudonym, Dread Pirate Roberts, a goofy character in The Princess Diaries.

Again, this helps point to why Winter treads so effectively into this territory. And he also represents himself well, in a follow-up email, when I push him on what I’d call Deep Web‘s potentially problematic sympathetic depiction of Ulbricht.

I, of course, believe that a person is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, but it appears likely that Ulbricht committed some serious illegalities (he was convicted and, this week, his sentencing is expected to be announced), or, at the least, his ethical code veers far from what’s socially acceptable. Like, he very well may have acted in a way that could have gotten people killed. And yet, the film, although it doesn’t openly say he’s innocent, I’d say is sympathetic to him. And being a part of the “Free Ross” movement and having his parents as allies, contributes to the notion that Winter is on his side.

But let’s hear from him: “My own code of ethics with any film, regardless of whether of not it involves criminality or potentially unsympathetic character, is to present the world as it is experienced by the participants of that film. This film specifically is an examination of the dark net, the Silk Road and the case of Ross Ulbricht, from the inside perspective of Wired journalist Andy Greenberg, Ross’s family and the Silk Road community. I am aware that this method can present varied responses, particularly if one is expecting a more ‘journalistic’ film with a thesis. I rigorously avoid making journalistic films as that precludes the possibility for nuance. A documentary has great power to see through the participants’ own biases, hopes, fear, etc. It’s the essence of the story that lies beneath the surface that I’m most interested in.”

But this filmmaker’s credo didn’t preclude presenting the facts ethically, according to Winter. “All of the significant aspects of the case are laid out in detail,” he says.

Fair enough. Check it out on Epix and decide for yourself.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen