"The Internet's Own Boy" was funded in part through a Kickstarter campaign and screened earlier this year at the Sundance and South by Southwest film festivals, where it got largely positive reviews.

"While the film borders on hagiography ... the celebration of what Swartz accomplished never feels forced or inauthentic," wrote Geoff Berkshire in Variety. "Instead, 'The Internet's Own Boy' is a beautifully crafted film that opens a window on a world not everyone has entered yet, and exposes ways in which both the legal system and the U.S. government is lagging hopelessly behind technology."

Katherine Kilkenny, writing for IndieWire, said one of the film's running themes is the question of whether "this generation's programming magicians" will choose to use their power for purpose or profit.

"We often see stories of slight, sloppy-looking young coders like Swartz transformed into national icons by the tech industry, but rarely with such close attention to ethics," she wrote. "Knappenberger has delivered a film brimming with outrage."

It's that sort of outrage that turned Swartz's death into a cause celebre among Internet-freedom advocates.

Tributes after death

Multiple memorials were held for Swartz, from his hometown of Highland Park, Illinois, to Cooper Union in Manhattan to Capitol Hill, where attendees included U.S. senators and representatives who spoke out in favor of the freedom of information online.

An online movement tagged #PDFtribute encouraged academics and others in the public sector to make their writings and other documents freely available online, and many did.

Princeton University announced new scholarships in Swartz's name. He was posthumously named to the Internet Hall of Fame, and members of the "hacktivist" movement Anonymous hacked two MIT websites, posting calls that Swartz's death become a rallying point for the open-access movement.

"That was part of the reason I was so drawn to it," said Knappenberger, who had previously profiled Anonymous in the documentary "We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists."

"There was obviously this big wave of anger and frustration and sympathy that came out of the Internet after he died that was notably not there during his case.

"It wasn't just people who knew him. It was people from far beyond the online world where he was a celebrity. All kinds of people really responded to his story."

To those closest to him, the film is a bittersweet tribute.

"It's extremely difficult for me to watch," Aaron's father, Robert Swartz, told CNN. "I think that Brian has done a wonderful job presenting who Aaron was, where he came from, what he tried to accomplish, and what kind of role model he represents to others who can use those skills rather than simply making money as a means to improve the world and make the world a better place."

"The Internet's Own Boy" premiered Thursday in Los Angeles and begins rolling out to theaters in more than 25 cities on Friday. It is being released simultaneously in multiple digital formats, including on Creative Commons, where it will be made available for any use that does not involve making a profit from it.