It seems like WikiLeaks has peaked. Although the organization continues to release material under the leadership of its controversial founder Julian Assange, none of its recent leaks have had the same level of impact as its big scoops in 2011. So it makes sense that director Alex Gibney would wait until the story had closure before he released his documentary, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, which attempts to be the definitive history of the whistleblowing organization.
We Steal Secrets doesn’t say much that is new about the WikiLeaks story, but it is enlightening, artful, and well-paced. The film proceeds chronologically through WikiLeaks’ three biggest scoops: the video of the Blackhawk Apache helicopter air strike that killed two Reuters journalists, the Afghan war logs, the Iraq war logs, and the massive dump of more than 250,000 diplomatic cables.
"The film doesn’t explain; it explores," Gibney said in a statement. "Let the explanations begin. But I will leave those to others." However, Gibney does seem to have a few theories of his own.
The film attempts to paint Bradley Manning, the special intelligence analyst serving in Iraq who sent WikiLeaks its biggest scoops and faces life in prison, as "the emotional center" of the story. By contrast, Assange is the "noble liar," a reference to his hacker alias Splendide Mendax, who grows increasingly paranoid and hypocritical under the harsh light of international fame.
Assange is the "noble liar"
Manning is portrayed through his intimate instant messages to Adrian Lamo, the hacker-journalist who eventually turned him in. He's also described in interviews with his former army supervisor and a friend; accompanying photos show his large blue eyes and small frame.
By the end you get the feeling that you’re supposed to feel sympathetic toward Manning. Gibney puts a lot of weight on Manning’s self-diagnosed gender identity disorder, which seemed to cause the 25-year-old a lot of distress during his term of service. His plaintive instant messages blink pathetically on screen: "The reaction to the video gave me intense hope. Twitter exploded." His glasses were confiscated while in prison, and he was kept in solitary confinement for a year with the lights kept on in his cell all night. But without any video of Manning, his character is flat — especially compared to Assange’s rollicking, bemused villain.
Picking through piles of Assange footage must have been one of the greatest challenges of making this documentary. Gibney has some excellent finds after trekking to Iceland, Germany, Australia, and elsewhere. There is a clip of Assange at a club, dancing like a raver with his characteristic confidence (the amateur footage came from a DJ). There's also a clip of the hacker on his cell phone, in a suit, bouncing around lightly on a trampoline. Journalist Mark Davis was taping Assange before WikiLeaks got famous, providing another source of never-before-seen footage. There’s even news footage of Assange from 1995, when he was convicted on 25 counts of hacking in Australia and released on bond.
One recent clip shows Assange’s eyes glowing as someone spreads the day’s newspapers, splashed with his face, on the floor before him. "I’m untouchable now in this country," he whispers. "Untouchable."
"Isn’t that a bit of hubris?" someone asks, off-camera.
"For the next few days," Assange says. "Untouchable."
"I’m untouchable in this country now. Untouchable."
It’s fortunate there is so much great footage available of Assange, because Gibney does not interview him. Gibney requested an interview with Assange, it’s explained near the end of the film. The hacker, knowing that Gibney had received funding from Universal Pictures for the film, said the "going rate" was $1 million. When Gibney demurred — "I don't pay for interviews, it's just a rule that I have," the director told The Verge — Assange said he’d talk if Gibney agreed to spy on his other interviewees and tell Assange what they said. Gibney refused.
Gibney succeeds in putting together a well-rounded picture of the WikiLeaks saga, although he’s missing the voices of any ardent Assange supporters. He manages to get some candor out of former CIA director Michael Hayden — the movie’s title is a Hayden quote — and brings the robotic Lamo to tears. The baby-faced James Ball, a journalist who aided WikiLeaks and now writes for The Guardian, lends insight and charm, while the boisterous Gavin MacFadyen, director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism, has some of the best lines in the film (he describes the scale of WikiLeaks' operation by calling it "a corner gas station with some extremely bright attendants"). The former WikiLeakers don’t reveal any surprises, and it’s somewhat disappointing that they don’t have better anecdotes about their fearless former leader.
The documentary ends in March of 2013. The WikiLeaks adventure has come to a halt. Assange is still holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, attempting to escape extradition to Sweden where he faces accusations of sexual assault, and is considering a run for the Australian Senate. Manning is in prison, awaiting his sentence. At one time, the rise of WikiLeaks as a global political seemed inevitable. Today, it's fighting irrelevance. Gibney does a good job surveying the history of WikiLeaks, but unfortunately, there is little left to say.
We Steal Secrets will be in select theaters May 24th.