Gripping tale of flawed idealist
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
GIBNEY HAS GIVEN US A FINELY NUANCED DOCUMENTARY
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