We Steal Secrets

I’m guessing that the entertainment facilities at Ecuador’s embassy in London aren’t up to scratch. “Wikileaks” has recently published a line-for-line annotation for Alex Gibney’s new documentary, We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks (for those interested, found here: http://wikileaks.org/IMG/html/gibney-transcript.html), punctuated with acerbic corrections and a spitfire tone.  Mostly these “corrections” are concerned with Wikileaks’ reputation, hotly protesting that Gibney’s summation of its earlier successes are not complimentary enough, before repeatedly listing Wikileaks achievements which Gibney’s documentary seems to have let slip. It’s all a bit self-important, and even feels a bit like stumbling across a copy of Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich covered in inky, red swathes of Hitler’s paranoid notations.

Needless to say, We Steal Secrets is hardly a panegyric to its central subject, the infamous Julian Assange, the man who dared to embarrass the world’s most powerful national security state, the United States of America. An emaciated semi-albino with a face constantly twisted in a look of general distaste, it’s easy to present Wikileaks’ founder as somewhat less heroic than just megalomaniacal. Yet you have to admire the man’s gall: throughout, Assange’s determination to uncover the truth, regardless of the political threats or for that matter ethical conundrums, is indomitable, and while the cabals in hindsight have proved less significant than initially promised, merely adding to the already extensive list of America’s war crimes, it’s inspiring to see someone stand up against the continuous pig-shit excuses regurgitated throughout the documentary by Bush’s former cohort of spies and generals – even if that figure does make for a less than inspiring David.

Gibney is a prolific documentary film-maker. Recently he’s begun to average about three of them a year, and it seems I only just walked out of Mea Maxima Culpa, spirits flaring over the child abuses of the Catholic Church (I think tears might have been involved, and a characteristically Irish urge to hit someone or something). Yet if he’s one of the most prolific he’s also one of the most manipulative, his documentaries often engaging the audience’s emotional faculties rather than seeking their intellectual engagement. He has an innate gift for setting the mood, picking the right music for the right image, so events easily unfold according to his own narrative, rather than as the objective facts stand. He revises the character of Bradley Manning’s outer, Adrian Lamo, whose interview looks like stock footage for your typical dead-eyed, monotonous hacker, as a conflicted, moral figure, gliding over how Lamo lulled Manning into a false sense of trust, assuring him of legal protection for Manning’s confession, before preying on others after Manning’s arrest.

There also appears to be an innate desire to sensationalise the story, perhaps because a lot of it is already so familiar to his audience. In an interview for Wired concerning the documentary, Gibney explained:

“the initial presentation of the story was that Bradley Manning was a pure political figure … I don’t think that’s a sufficient explanation of why he did what he did. He had this idea that he was in the wrong body and wanted to become a woman … I think it raises big issues about who whistleblowers are, because they are alienated people who don’t get along with people around them, which motivates them to do what they do.”

Manning’s political convictions (“… because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public”) are swept aside in order to illustrate his gender issues as a central cause for the leaks. Hackers throughout are constantly portrayed as loners and outsiders, as if you have be emotionally disconnected in some way to want to reveal US human right abuses.

As you can tell, I’m having trouble reviewing this film on an aesthetic level. But its subject matter is so politically charged, so recent in memory, that it’s almost impossible to divide aesthetics from its message. To be fair Gibney doesn’t seem so much politically biased as just trying to create the best story from the events at hand; we get to watch American gunships mow down innocent people milling about a Baghdad suburb, juxtaposed with former Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs discarding it with a particularly demonic sangfroid.

And Gibney should be commended for asking what should be obvious questions like, what if Assange’s two alleged rape victims are actually telling the truth? And why is Assange being held more culpable for the speculative blood of those exposed by the cables than the actual blood shed by the people behind these leaked documents? In many ways We Steal Secrets is also the story of how modern society rushes to conclusions, fashioning heroes and villains from media punchlines and malformed evidence.

Covering a lot of familiar territory, We Steal Secrets can come across as a tad slow and obvious, but Julian Assange is a fascinating subject, and it’s the exploration of his personal story, from an ambitious punk with a primordial internet connection to a world-class dissident, that serves as the heart of the film. It’s your typical overreaching tragedy, the protagonist slowly becoming more isolated, more suspicious as the power rushes to his head; and one of the most revealing things about Assange’s character comes from the revelation that in order to agree to an interview with Gibney, Assange required either a million dollars or Gibney’s complicity in spying on his enemies. It may not be completely honest but it packs an emotional punch, and one can’t help leaving the cinema thinking that the Ecuadorian embassy must make for a cold bunker.