Secrecy and revelation

This is a documentary about a complex subject that could not be more relevant at this moment: government secrecy, whistleblowers, and Wikileaks. Earlier, Alex Gibney proved himself to be an excellent documentary filmmaker in Taxi to the Dark Side, a subtle and suspenseful indictment of America’s illegally conducted post-9/11 warfare. Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room was another timely exposé. Gibney may be one of the ablest documentarians working today, on a par with the likes of Errol Morris and James Marsh.

The Story of Wikileaks is a must-see film for anybody interested in politics and world affairs, and it’s to be hoped that a lot of those “anybodys” will actually see it. Governments, particularly Washington, produce more information and hide more information than ever before in history. The government is more powerful than ever before and also, because of the nature of computers and the Internet, more vulnerable. The unprecedented threat to free speech and freedom of information this situation engenders — quite as much under Obama as under Bush, if not more so — is best conveyed in the film by former US government officials like ex-CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden whom Gibney interviews. This is the essential story, nicely sketched in, but not fully explored. (And these speakers might be more clearly identified.)

Because its makers want to sell theater tickets, We Steal Secrets winds up being more centrally about people than about secrets, about Julian Assange than about Wikileaks, about the causce célebre of Wikileaks than the deeper issues. The title is misleading, by the way, and it reveals the film’s perhaps inevitable bent toward sensationalism. The film is primarily about Bradley Manning, the slight, gay, blond Army Private who has admitted to conveying an enormous number of classified government documents to Wikileaks, and about Julian Assange, the tall, dramatic, white-haired Australian founder of Wikileaks itself. But the phrase “We steal secrets” was not spoken by Assange, as will probably be assumed. It is uttered in the film by a US official, describing the activities of the secret branches of the American government. The Wikileaks slogan, on Twitter, is “We open governments.” That phrase too is bold, provocative — and it’s something else, that reflects Assange’s hubris but also his passion: it’s as idealistic as it is ambitious. But it’s not as catchy as “We steal secrets.”

It would be important to learn more about the secrets revealed and the reasons for hiding them in the first place. Not that Bradley Manning and Julian Assange are not juicy subjects. And what a wealth of data about both of them Gibney gives us! More than we may really need to know. Of course we have to know that, after he had collaborated with Der Spiegel, Le Monde, and the New York Times to reveal the massive hoard of documents that came to him, Assange, not so coincidentally, perhaps, came to be accused of raping two young Swedish women. But how much do we need to know about Manning’s doubts about his gender, or the fact that once, while on leave from duty in Iraq, he rode a train along the East Coast in full drag?

And yet on the other hand, how can Gibney resist informing us? It’s a tricky business, because this information is part of the personal story. Manning is under indictment in a military court. Assange has sought asylum at the Ecuadoran embassy in London. Manning is threatened with many years in prison, even the death penalty. Assange fears extradition to the US and a similar fate. Several speakers in this film suggest these are exaggerated penalties. (The Obama administration has been more ruthless in persecuting whistleblowers and leakers of secrets than any previous US government, but Gibney barely touches on this.)

The focus on the personal sagas of Bradley Manning and Julian Assange leaves relatively little room for We Steal Secrets to talk about the implications of the classified files, particularly the ones from American embassies. It is also a pity there is no mention of Daniel Ellsberg of the Vietnam era Pentagon Papers, who has closely identified himself with the cause of Bradley Manning, though it is mentioned that the US government is not now indicting the NY Times, as Nixon sought to do. And Gibney mentions that the Times has left Assange swinging in the wind, as it did Ellsberg before him.

Again, the largest amount of time about the files is spent on the most sensational one, the video of US soldiers massacring innocent people in a square in Iraq from a helicopter, including Reuters correspondents and children on their way to school, as if they were playing a video game. But in fairness, this is also the item that Manning himself seems to have been most impressed by.

We Steal Secrets, starting from the title itself, could have been less sensational and personal and dwelt more on the deep moral and legal issues involved. But still, as one who has followed these events with much interest, I find Gibney’s account not only impressively fluent, but, with the reservations already expressed, quite balanced.

One thing that is amazing is simply how much footage We Steal Secrets has of Assange, doing all the things he’s described as doing. It almost looks as if he cooperated and reenacted the events for Gibney’s camera. But that is scarcely possible given that by the time Gibney began talking to Assange, he was already under semi-confinement by the British government and could not go around posing for a camera anywhere. It turns out this earlier footage of a happier, saner Assange was shot by another filmmaker, Mark Davis. This is just an example that we live in an age where everybody, especially someone as ambitious and public as Assange, is filmed all the time. But it is a bit strange to see all the footage, since Assange refused ever to be interviewed by Gibney for this film.

As for Bradley Manning, he was being held in solitary confinement at Quantico when the film was made. Now he is being tried at Fort Meade, Maryland. But the coverage of his story takes on a very intimate quality, after sketching in Manning’s military experience and Iraq posting (he was high strung, and the most talented and smart computer person his supervisor had seen), by recreating his online communications with Adrian Lamo, the unstable and strange young man, interviewed by Gibney in detail, who, after he had begun leaking, became first his confident, then his accuser, responsible for his imprisonment. Just lines of type across a dark screen, but their desperation and intimacy speak volumes. But there is too little about Lamo himself (a condition of getting him to speak?): Lamo was a hacker too, as Manning and (preeminently) Assange were, notable for high-profile computer intrusions, described alternately, an IMDb blurb states, “as the ‘most effective and controversial hacker of the 21st century,’ the ‘Bobby Fischer of hacking,’ and a common criminal.” There’s a story there that most surely colors his “outing” of Manning, but we don’t get it. Lamo, a strange and odious figure (reported here as an Asperger’s sufferer sometimes off his meds), might deserve a film of his own.

As for Assange — but see the film and you will learn about Assange. It does justice to his complexities, and does not overstate them, though Assange’s very dicey current situation explains why he does not endorse this film. Much is made by the film of his state of paranoia. But his circumstances nowadays aren’t far from those of Salmon Rushdie from 1988 to 1998. He could as well be under a fatwa.


Film Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

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