Alex Gibney is the most prolific American documentary filmmaker working today, knocking out three or four features a year, frequently dealing with the hot-wired nexus of politics, secrecy, and money. While he doesn’t hit a home run each time, and has arguably never made a masterpiece, he still produces at least one must-see film a year. We’re only halfway through 2013, but it’s possible that Gibney’s sprawling, thoughtful, vivid documentary on Julian Assange and the WikiLeaks scandal will end up one of the year’s necessary films.
There is little here that hasn’t been reported before. But as with his previous scandal films Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Gibney succinctly culls an octopus-like megastory into one solidly-constructed narrative crisply related by a balanced roster of participants (as opposed to talking heads just opining on events they didn’t witness). Gibney wants to tell the story of Julian Assange, the white-haired Australian techno-anarchist righteously obsessed with what one interviewee termed “crushing bastards.” Over the course of a commendably even-handed film, Assange’s profile morphs from that of committed idealist to shameless huckster.
As shown by Gibney, the “bastards” were comprised of Western governments and corporations who performed dirty deeds with impunity and then hushed them up. With the WikiLeaks site, Assange essentially helped create a gigantic digital dropbox for any whistle blower to anonymously and safely download confidential files that could then be spread to mirror sites around the world before the powers that be could take them back again. It was something of an “information wants to be free” electronic libertarian’s dream.
The problems began not long after WikiLeaks garnered mainstream media attention in 2010 with the release of confidential U.S. military records from the Iraq and Afghanistan war. These included the so-called “Collateral Murder” footage, classified audio and video recorded by an American gunship as it fired on a group of Iraqis; a child and two Reuters employees were among those killed. This garnered massage coverage for Assange and his WikiLeaks collaborators. It also set the stage for an even bigger data dump and showed glimmers of the paranoid narcissism, well-documented here, that would later characterize Assange.
Gibney then pivots to the story of a depressed Army intelligence private on a base east of Baghdad who secured some secret documents and wasn’t sure what to do. Bringing Assange and Bradley Manning together makes for an interesting convergence of two high-functioning tech-obsessives who tended see the world in black-and-white, or ones and zeros. The portrait painted of both men is that of self-destructive personalities easily given over to grandiose plotting and a frustration with all the humans who don’t understand their motives. Assange portrayed his reasons for refusing to redact personal information from the hundreds of thousands of classified military and diplomatic files supplied by Manning as an idealistic commitment to ultimate transparency. However, one of Gibney’s most voluble interviewees, Nick Davies of The Guardian (one of several newspapers Assange aligned with to release the documents, only to break away in frustration at their insistence on journalistic ethics) asked Assange what if an Afghan informant was identified from the leaks by the Taliban? Assange allegedly responded that any Afghans working with the allies deserved to be killed.
With all the journalists and computer activists who pulled away from Assange after he seemed to turn WikiLeaks into his own vendetta, Gibney could have produced a simple piece of character assassination. (He certainly has the ammunition, having even secured an interview with one of the two Swedish women who accused Assange of sexual assault.) But We Steal Secrets at least tries to maintain a broader focus, discussing the broader implications of the potential war crimes uncovered by the Iraq War data dump, instead of zeroing in on the foibles of the leakers, as Assange and Manning’s many pro-war detractors did.
We Steal Secrets has some failings, mostly from biting off more than it can chew; this is particularly the case with the conflicted Manning, arguably the more intriguing case. But by refusing to hold Assange up as either a simple villain or Anonymous-styled martyr, Gibney has created one of the signature discussions on the signature debate of the post-9/11 information-security age, namely: Who needs to know?