It is testament to Alex Gibney’s skill as a storyteller that the central character in We Steal Secrets: The Wikileaks Story didn’t participate in the film, and yet it doesn’t detract at all from the narrative, but, in fact, adds to it.
Dithering over whether or not to appear in the film, Julian Assange, according to Gibney, at one point, requested that he (Gibney) spy on the other participants in the film on his (Julian’s) behalf, in exchange for an interview.
In Gibney’s words, he had become the type of person he was fighting against.
In a drama that is usually depicted as an epic battle between the surveillance state and transparency radicals, there has been very little insight into the human characters obscured by the grand machinery of Wikileaks as Alex Gibney describes it; a pulling back of the curtain to peer truthfully at the sometimes flawed, sometimes scheming, mostly well-intentioned people pulling the levers behind the scenes at Wikileaks, and also those who opposed and sought to defeat them.
In a series of frank interviews, focusing on two central characters: Julian Assange and Bradley Manning, it begins with the euphoric heights of idealism and moral purpose that Wikileaks and its antipodean founder had once occupied, and then ends on a severe comedown: the legal troubles of Julian Assange, the arrest and detention of Bradley Manning and bitter infighting amongst Wikileaks employees “ many of whom felt badly let down by Assange.
It reveals that the undoing of both Manning and Assange was not through the malevolent actions of others against them, or even of theirs against others, but though the good intentions of all.
Gibney’s honest approach to the subject uncovers a number of myths and misconceptions. Perhaps the most pervasive of all is that the allegations of sexual misconduct made against Julian Assange by two Swedish women are part of a covert ploy by the American and Swedish governments to extradite Assange to the US where he could face prosecution for the leaking of the classified US diplomatic cables.
Although this may appear credible on the surface, deeper investigation reveals such suspicions to be entirely spurious.
James Ball, a former Wikileaks employee, who puts in a particularly strong performance in the film, explains that much to the chagrin of his Wikileaks colleagues, Assange deliberately conflated his work as an activist with the case.
One of the women appears in the documentary, anonymously, although her identity is known on the Internet. She expresses incredulity at the notion that she was an undercover operative, secretly working with the US government to bring Assange down; her motives are genuine, she maintains, as are those of the Swedish authorities.
This is supported in a third interview with Daniel Bostrom, an investigative journalist and the main coordinator for Wikileaks in Sweden, who argues that Julian may have fallen victim to his own rock star status and possibly did treat these women carelessly. In no way were they trying to set Assange up. They were just ordinary nice girls, he says
Assange, however, began insisting very publically that he was being persecuted by the US and that he had been warned to expect dirty tricks like this. He became very paranoid and secretive and at one point even tried to get his Wikileaks colleagues to sign non-disclosure agreements “ a somewhat hypocritical request from the leader of an organization that claimed to be about total and complete transparency.
It was this type of bizarre behaviour that alienated Assange from many of his former colleagues and supporters, and detracted a great deal from the work of Wikileaks, which also comes under scrutiny.
The documentary also reveals that Wikileaks was not as prepared for the publication of the classified information it had obtained as it purported to be.
Although Julian Assange claimed that Wikileaks had certain harm minimization procedures in place to redact and remove sensitive information, it, in fact, did not have anything of the sort and had become completely overwhelmed by the enormity of the task.
As a result, thousands of unredacted documents were made public, exposing the identities of people whose lives were put in great danger.
A real sense of disillusionment and wearied enthusiasm permeates the second half of the film, particularly in reference to Bradley Manning, another wholly absent central character, who has since been successfully prosecuted and imprisoned for his role in the leaking of classified material to Wikileaks.
Private Manning’s troubled psyche is explored in more depth, his gender dysphoria and difficult upbringing, his reaching out to Wikileaks as a firm ballast amidst what he perceived to be choppy moral waters.
His actions are often dismissed as that of a psychologically damaged loner intent on revenge against the establishment, but the film also challenges this misconception and depicts him as more than that, as someone who genuinely thought what he was doing was good, who was lonely and isolated and whose trust was betrayed by someone, who, surprise surprise, also thought that he was behaving ethically.
Adrian Lamo, the hacker, who turned Manning over to the authorities, and who has since been castigated by his fellows in the hacking community for cooperating with the US government, tearfully admits when interviewed in the film that he wished to hell it had never happened.
It’s dense material and Gibney does an admirable job of being both informative and entertaining, presenting a great deal of information in clear, erudite sequences with expertly curated archival footage.
One barely notices that neither Assange nor Manning directly participated in the film, and I believe that the film does a good job of presenting them fairly. It doesn’t come across as a hatchet job or hero worship of any kind.
We Steal Secrets does exactly what Wikileaks promised to do; it presents the truth. And perhaps the least uttered truth of all: there aren’t that many self-styled villains in the mould of The Joker, most of us, even noble crusaders for freedom, try to do our best, make a lot of mistakes in the process and at the end of the month bill it to The Good Intentions Paving Company.