DIR/WRI: Alex Gibney • PRO: Alexis Bloom, Marc Shmuger • DOP: Maryse Alberti • ED: Andy Grieve • Cast: Julian Assange, Adrian Lamo, Bradley Manning, James Ball
Secrets, power, visibility and the spread of information are key themes in the work of Alex Gibney. The Oscar-winning documentarian’s Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God have previously asked questions about the covering-up, revelation of, and reaction to large-scale institutional abuses in a way that encourages viewer engagement with the answers.
As such, he seems ideally-suited to demystify the story of Wikileaks, the whistle-blowing site founded by Australian hacker Julian Assange which was responsible for the largest leak of US classified material in history. His film couldn’t come at a better time, as the organisation’s involvement with NSA mole Edward Snowden continues to unfold almost hourly; while The Fifth Estate, Bill Condon’s Hollywood take on the story starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Assange, is due out this winter.
The title of the film, while appearing to refer to the modus operandi of Wikileaks, is actually a quote from former CIA director Michael Hayden about the increasingly dubious means of gathering intelligence employed by the US, especially since the events of 9/11. This doubling of institutional action with that of individuals, and the different consequences for both, smartly recurs throughout the film.
This is a stylish, easy-to-follow piece of work, drawing from news media, original and archive interviews, and most poignantly, instant messaging chat logs to present a range of perspectives on its subject. Beginning as a chronicle of Julian Assange’s brand of ‘hacktivism,’ the film links him to a digital anti-nuclear attack on NASA in 1989 as part of Melbourne’s burgeoning hacking scene, before the launch of Wikileaks in 2006. Belittled by a defence specialist as a ‘$300 laptop and ten SIM cards,’ Wikileaks global impact is nevertheless depicted as far-reaching and consequential, exposing bank defaults in Iceland, political corruption in Kenya, and most famously, the true civilian cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.
Its apex in public consciousness is presented as the ‘Collateral Murder’ video, exposing the deaths of eight civilians, including two Reuters journalists, in an airstrike in Baghdad. A game-changer for Wikileaks, the footage results in collaborations with more traditional media outlets; parliamentary questions and inquiries into the leaks globally; and the overnight ascendance of Julian Assange into an equally exhilarated and suspicious public eye.
Hailed alternately as a champion of free speech, and a terrorist with ‘blood on his hands,’ Assange is painted in broad strokes in the film. Contentious claims by or about his character are often questioned by Gibney, double-checking the wording or context behind a quote, apparently with an eye on transparency. Though while his own revelation about Assange’s price for an interview – either information about the other interviews conducted for the film, or a million dollars – may also function in this way, it also reinforces an image of an increasingly paranoid and hypocritical figure.
Assange’s rise and fall is paralleled in the film by that of PFC Bradley Manning, the anonymous source of hundreds of thousands of documents downloaded from classified US military and diplomatic servers, including the ‘Collateral Murder’ video. The highly-visible bravado of Assange (who declares himself ‘untouchable’ after teaming up with The Guardian and The New York Times) serves as a counterpoint to Manning’s quietly desperate behaviour. Ultimately turned in by hacker Adrian Lamo, to whom he had disclosed the full extent of his whistle-blowing through instant messaging, Manning is a silenced but active force in the film, his chat-logged words speaking for him a letter at a time to spell out an utterly divided self. Against the sound of typing, rhythmically evoking the marching-snares of war, Manning reveals his back-story, his motivations, and hundreds of thousands of cables worth of classified information. There is undoubtedly the most affective and emotional part of the film. Even as the film presents Manning as a troubled and somewhat volatile young man, prompting questions over his army service and supervision, he nevertheless gets a sympathetic edit, with much more support vocalised for Manning than Assange by those interviewed.
The film works well as a Wikileaks cheat-sheet, if not one the organisation would necessarily approve about themselves. Those who have been following the story of Wikileaks along with Gibney may not find a lot new here, although some interviews illuminate previously muted perspectives, such as that of one of Assange’s alleged assault victims. The contemporary nature of the subject matter is both its blessing and curse, illuminating chronologically the rise and fall of the ongoing controversies around the organisation. Yet as the film concludes with afterwords dated March 2013, the narrative cannot help but feel somewhat interrupted.
Nevertheless, We Steal Secrets is an eminently watchable and well-ordered account of Wikileaks, which asks some serious and important questions about information-sharing, the contradiction of privacy and freedom of information, and the boundaries between public and private knowledge, without ever forcing the answers or overwhelming its audience.
15A (see IFCO website for details)
We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks is released on 12th July 2013.