Grip­ping tale of flawed ide­al­ist

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

ALEX Gib­ney’s doc­u­men­tary, We Steal Se­crets: The Story of Wik­iLeaks, traces the ca­reers of Ju­lian As­sange, the founder of Wik­iLeaks, and Bradley Man­ning, the US army in­tel­li­gence an­a­lyst who stole thou­sands of items of clas­si­fied de­fence in­for­ma­tion and pro­vided As­sange with most of his raw ma­te­rial. It is an ab­sorb­ing story.

Gib­ney is per­haps the lead­ing doc­u­men­tary film­maker of his gen­er­a­tion. His dev­as­tat­ing ex­po­sure of cor­po­rate cor­rup­tion, En­ron: The Smartest Guy in the Room, was fol­lowed by Taxi to the Dark Side, about the de­ten­tion, tor­ture and mur­der of an Afghanistan tax­idriver in US cus­tody in Iraq, which won the Os­car for best doc­u­men­tary in 2008. Re­cently I re­viewed Mea Max­ima Culpa: Si­lence in the House of God, his bit­terly sad ac­count of sex abuse by US Catholic clergy. In We Steal Se­crets, he gives us an­other grip­ping nar­ra­tive, be­gin­ning with young Ju­lian’s first at­tempts at hack­ing when he was teenage boy in Melbourne in the 1980s and mov­ing on to Wik­iLeaks, which scored some no­table suc­cesses ex­pos­ing ex­tra-ju­di­cial killings in Kenya, toxic waste dump­ing in other African coun­tries and harsh de­ten­tion pro­ce­dures at Guan­tanamo Bay.

Long be­fore he achieved in­ter­na­tional celebrity sta­tus, As­sange was in trou­ble with law-en­force­ment agen­cies in Aus­tralia. The Aus­tralian Fed­eral Po­lice raided his home in 1991 af­ter he hacked into a US air force site in the Pen­tagon. He pleaded guilty to 25 charges of il­le­gal hack­ing and was re­leased on a good be­hav­iour bond. It wasn’t un­til Wik­iLeaks be­gan dis­sem­i­nat­ing more than 250,000 US doc­u­ments, many clas­si­fied as se­cret, and the US jus­tice depart­ment be­gan a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion. A break­through came when The New York Times and Lon­don’s The Guardian news­pa­per agreed to pub­lish co­pi­ous amounts of Wik­iLeaks ma­te­rial, all of it sup­plied by


Man­ning, the timid, in­tel­lec­tu­ally bril­liant and sex­u­ally con­flicted young hacker who en­dured much anti-gay bul­ly­ing dur­ing his years in the army. We are left with the im­pres­sion — a view firmly ex­pressed by one ob­server in the film — that Man­ning was the real hero of Wik­iLeaks and that As­sange ef­fec­tively de­stroyed his own cre­ation through a mix­ture of reck­less­ness and hubris.

Gib­ney has given us a beau­ti­fully crafted and finely nu­anced doc­u­men­tary in which the sym­pa­thies of the film­mak­ers, while clearly on the side of freedom of in­for­ma­tion and the pub­lic’s right to know (how­ever that term may be de­fined), are never blinded by prej­u­dice or pre­con­cep­tion. For some rea­son — be­guiled, per­haps, by As­sange’s pop star sta­tus — I had been ex­pect­ing an un­crit­i­cal trib­ute to him, but Gib­ney’s film strikes me as scrupu­lously fair. One of the lessons of this murky story — or, as some would say, one of the lessons of life it­self — is that noth­ing is as sim­ple as it first ap­pears. Nei­ther As­sange nor Man­ning emerges from the film with an un­sul­lied rep­u­ta­tion. Man­ning, now on trial on se­cu­rity charges, is a bro­ken and de­feated man. As­sange, holed up in the Ecuado­rian em­bassy in Lon­don, comes across as a flawed ide­al­ist, some­thing less than the sec­u­lar saint por­trayed by his ad­mir­ers. In the words of Jemima Khan, one of the film’s pro­duc­ers: ‘‘ A no­ble cause is not nec­es­sar­ily a guar­an­tee of a saintly leader.’’

Nei­ther As­sange nor Man­ning was in­ter­viewed for the film, though ap­par­ently Gib­ney made ev­ery ef­fort to talk to As­sange in his refuge in Lon­don. Ac­cord­ing to Khan, quoted in the film’s pro­duc­tion notes: ‘‘ Ju­lian As­sange wanted ex­ten­sive edi­to­rial con­trol of the film, which I knew Alex would never agree to. In the end it be­came in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult and ne­go­ti­a­tions broke down.’’

This is a pity, be­cause we never hear from As­sange, or any of his sup­port­ers, a co­her­ent and rea­soned de­fence of his ac­tiv­i­ties. He be­haves like one for whom the jus­tice of his cause is self-ev­i­dent.

Gib­ney re­lies on ex­tracts from old As­sange

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