Directed by: Alex Gibney.
If you’ve followed the strange, ever twisting story of WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange, you probably aren’t going to learn all that much new information in Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks. But Gibney – who is seemingly able to churn out a new documentary about once every six months, with a surprisingly high level of consistency, has a skill at bringing everything together in one, neat little two hour and ten minute package. Here is the kind of documentary about a controversial subject that I like – it will (and has) angered Assange’s many, many passionate supporters, and will likely anger his many, many passionate detractors as well. Which is a complicated way of saying that Gibney probably gets most of it right. Things are never as simple as the people on either extreme would like us to think they are.
Perhaps the saddest thing about WikiLeaks is the fact that on some level, we need an organization like this. When the U.S. Military gunned down reporters from Reuters – bizarrely claiming their cameras looked like guns, and then killed a father in a van who was simply taking his kids to school, there was little outrage – it was a minor story, dismissed by the Obama White House as an unfortunate accident, and quickly forgotten. That is until Assange got his hands on the videotape from the helicopter that showed what happened. Apparently those in the military like to trade these “kill tapes” amongst themselves – and eventually they found their way into Assange’s hands, who put them on his website in all their gruesome horror (including some sickening jokes being told “I just ran over a guy” one soldier says while practically chuckling.) Later, when all the PFC Bradley Manning leaked those hundreds of thousands of documents about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he didn’t go to a major news outlet – he went to Assange. And although the New York Times and The Guardian partnered with Assange to publish the most scandalous of the documents, they quickly backed away from him once they were through. Assange is useful for the mainstream media to do their dirty work, but they really don’t want anything to do with him.
Which on some level is understandable. After all, as the movie makes clear, Assange didn’t care if publishing all those documents got some people killed. One reporter at The Guardian recounts the time when Assange told him that “If an Afghan civilian co-operated with U.S. forces, they deserve to die”. Assange simply doesn’t care what consequences these leaks may have – he’s an idealist who believes that no information should be secret. That is, of course, until the information is about him.
The first half of the movie is better than the second half – as it documents Assange’s rise from obscure, genius hacker and his merry men of likeminded geniuses, to one of the most famous men in the world due to the leaks. This part is complex, because on one level you have to admire Assange for sticking to his ideals, and on the other, you can dislike the means in which he goes about things – and the ego maniac you can tell is forming. The second half of the movie isn’t quite as good – as it documents Assange’s fall – where he goes from genius idealist, into paranoid fanatic.
Did the U.S. government set up Assange with the two rape charges in Sweden, like Assange, and many of his supporters claim? Not likely. As the documentary points out (actually, a news clip from Assange’s own lawyer), it would be far easier for America to get Assange from the Brits than from the Swedes, so if they were going to cook up charges against him, it makes no sense to do it in Sweden (and, of course, there is the fact that the U.S. has no charges pending against him). But the two rape charges – which are still outstanding – is really what hastens Assange’s – and by extension WikiLeaks – fall. Assange grew increasingly paranoid, starting asking WikiLeaks employees to sign the type of non-disclosure agreements their sources often had to ignore to give them their stories. And then, last year, instead of going to Sweden to face the charges – which may or may not be trumped up depending on who you talk to (and Gibney talks to many people, including one of Assange’s accusers, who has had to face bizarre, misogynistic attacks by his supporters), he took refuge in the Ecuador Embassy in Britain – a nation he calls “principled”, but has a history of jailing reporters.
The hole in We Steal Secrets is the fact that Gibney couldn’t get an interview with Assange himself – claiming, in the documentary that he met with him several times to work out an agreement for an interview, but finally couldn’t work out anything when Assange insisted on $1 million to appear in the film (Assange denies this, saying he never intended to take part). But this isn’t as big a hole as you may think considering that Gibney has interviews with many, many others involved in the story – and access to the many, many interviews Assange gave to practically everyone else on the planet other than Gibney.
The other fascinating story thread, that Gibney weaves into the Assange’s narrative, is that of Manning – the whistleblower who gave Assange all those documents. He may never would have been caught if he hadn’t have been stupid if he hadn’t confided in the wrong person on the internet – a former hacker, who eventually turned Manning in. The portrait of Manning is far more sympathetic than the one of Assange – a lonely, sexually confused kid, who somehow had access to all these documents, and decided the world needed to see them. He took a moral stand – and has now been horribly mistreated in jail (but don’t worry, people have assured Obama he’s being treated fairly), where he’ll probably spend the rest of his life. Surprisingly, there are some former government officials who argue that there are too many secrets as well. Manning knew the potential consequences of his actions, and took the risk anyway, for something he believed in. I can feel sympathy for that. I don’t feel much sympathy for Assange though. Whatever situation he’s in, he got himself there – and now, he’s trying to avoid facing the consequences.