In the riveting crime thriller film ‘Silk Road,’ we see the rise and fall of Ross Ulbricht (Nick Robinson), the creator of the infamous darknet site called Silk Road. When the website becomes an unregulated marketplace for illegal drugs, it catches the eye of law enforcement. The disgraced DEA agent Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke) is determined to do anything to stop the man responsible for this. What ensues is a cat-and-mouse chase between Ross, as he grows increasingly paranoid, and Bowden, who is hot on his trail. This story may sound familiar to many people, making one think that the film could be based on true events. Let’s find out whether or not that is the case.
Is Silk Road Based on a True Story?
Yes, ‘Silk Road’ is based on a true story. However, parts of it have been fictionalized for the film. The movie is based on Ross Ulbricht, who was convicted for creating and operating the site, Silk Road. A graduate of Pennsylvania State University, Ulbricht set up the site after several failed entrepreneurial ventures. Writer and director Tiller Russell said that Ulbricht’s story caught his attention the first time he read about him in an article called ‘Dead End on Silk Road’ in the Rolling Stone.
The second half of the story had not gone public yet, but Russell contacted some people he knew in the DEA and the US Attorney’s Office to get the inside story. Russell had access to a rich archive of information through articles written about Ulbricht, court filings, statements at sentencing, and evidentiary records such as his chat logs, journal entries on the laptop, and public posts as “Dread Pirate Roberts.” Ulbricht’s ex-girlfriend Julia Vie was also consulted; she is the inspiration behind Alexandra Shipp’s character in the film.
It is important to note that the real Ross Ulbricht was not consulted before the movie was made, although it was not for lack of trying on the filmmaker’s part. Ulbricht is serving a double life sentence and forty years without parole at the United States Penitentiary in Tucson. Russell did reach out to him, albeit in vain. (Nonetheless, Russell hopes to get to know Ulbricht’s side of the story someday).
With all the information Tiller Russell collected, he added his own flavor, which can be seen in the film’s lighter notes. The most notable difference between the film and reality is Rick Bowden, who is a composite character. There were several people from law enforcement who were a part of the case, including some corrupt cops. Russell amalgamated the traits of two of these agents (in particular) into one character for this movie.
The site Silk Road went live in January 2011 and made Ulbricht a muti-millionnaire in a very short span of time. He started the site by offering psilocybin mushrooms that he cultivated himself. By then, he had also become the CEO of Good Wagon Books, a company left to him by Donny Palmertree. In his initial days at Good Wagon, Ulbricht built the website for the company, wrote a custom script to determine the price of books depending on the rankings on Amazon, and learned inventory management.
All of these skills came in handy when he started Silk Road. However, life did not get easier for him as he had to put in a lot of effort to stay in the shadows and stay a step ahead of the law. Ultimately, it started taking a toll on his relationships, as is also seen in the film. Ulbricht believed that every individual is entitled to economic, political, and moral freedom. He considered taxation and government a form of coercion and wanted to provide a medium to people where they could buy whatever they liked without being traced. He intended to help people and give them the experience to live “in a world without the systemic use of force.”
Therefore, he bypassed the mainstream economy and used crypto-currency for transactions on the site. Silk Road ran on Tor, which helped maintain the anonymity of the users, including Ulbricht himself. But in October 2013, Ulbricht was arrested by the police on charges of being the “mastermind” behind the site. His arrest was quite dramatic. It involved two agents pretending to be a quarreling couple while a third agent grabbed his laptop and gave it to Agent Thomas Kiernan. A flash drive was inserted to copy the important files required for the investigation. Evidently, ‘Silk Road’ retells this story of ideas and opinions in a truthful but dramatized manner.
Read More: Where Is Ross Ulbricht Now?