When director Alex Gibney tried to talk Wikileaks founder Julian Assange into recording an interview for his documentary We Steal Secrets, the negotiation lasted six hours, producing no agreement. After Gibney declined Assange’s asking price ($1 million), declined to give him editorial review of the film, and declined to spy on the Australian hacker’s estranged colleagues who were participating in the film, they parted ways.
If Gibney left the meeting worried about his film, he needn’t have been. The Taxi to the Dark Side director’s combination of existing interviews with the man himself and roaming, ambivalent takes from the journalists and keyboard jockeys who knew him provide a more than sufficient sketch of Assange’s anarchic character and its bizarre arc. If anything — and this criticism feels unfair, because how would one avoid it in telling this story? — We Steal Secrets has too much Assange and too little beyond the mane and sneer that became the public face of Wikileaks.
(About that face: Assange thinks it’s your fault. “The public demands that it has a face,” he says at one point, before Gibney shows Assange seeming to rather enjoy his media blitz and front-page notoriety.)
An hour in, it seems like We Steal Secrets is flagrant pro-Wikileaks propaganda. Gibney introduces the cadre of secret-stealers using rapid editing and the sort of sexy graphical overlays the movies have always used to make hackers thrilling. By contrast, the only person arguing for state secrets as a concept of any merit gets introduced sitting in a dark, opulent home interior. Retired Air Force General and former CIA head Michael Hayden is surrounded by scroll-carved wood paneling and expensive-looking stonework, every bit the mental stereotype of a powerful man invested and enriched by the status quo he protects. Gibney’s use of interview settings to shade characters goes on like that for a time, but the initial visual consistency blurs as some of the right-and-wrong clarity of the story evaporates. The simplistic moral calculus Gibney suggests in that first hour gives way to a more honest complexity.
When the bottom does drop out of that neat little white hat/black hat world, it produces an appropriate amount of vertigo. Wikileaks’s failure to redact the names of local figures who worked with the Americans in Afghanistan wasn’t just an oversight, in Gibney’s portrayal. It was a deliberate choice on Assange’s part to put those names out there, and to put the principle of transparency over the political impact of the fruits of that transparency. Gibney demonstrates that Assange knew the failure to redact could turn the narrative from one of American war crimes and the world’s most powerful government lying to its own people about a war that’s now in its twelfth year, and he still allowed that to happen. According to Guardian journalist and one-time Assange collaborator Nick Davies, Assange said privately that the Afghans named “deserved to die” for aiding their occupiers.
The latter half of the film — yes, this is a more-than-two-hour documentary — focuses primarily on Assange’s sexual assault charges in Sweden and his megalomaniacal fusing of the Wikileaks organization and brand to his own legal defense. (This is perhaps why Assange supporters have posted a critical annotation — mostly hyperventilating but occasionally damning — of the film’s entire script, including Davies’ allegation about Assange wishing death on Afghans who cooperated with U.S. forces.)
The details of the allegations against Assange, and of the headlong, dogmatic, and conspiracy-minded defenses he and others offer, do not entirely crowd out the more interesting concepts at play in this story. Gibney spends significant time on the most infamous of Assange’s leakers, U.S. Army Intelligence’s Pvt. Bradley Manning. We Steal Secrets portrays Manning in a heroic light, dimming it occasionally to note the obvious criticisms of Manning, but ultimately siding with his observation that he could have made himself rich by selling the information he leaked to America’s outright foes. The treatment of Manning during his incarceration at the Marine brig in Quantico, VA, was shameful, and the preview audience around me burst into applause when former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley recounted how he resigned rather than recant his criticism of the administration over its handling of Manning.
But it’s Hayden who delivers a much more satisfying moment than the Crowley-inspired collective fistpump, at least for anyone who walks into We Steal Secrets not yet knowing whose team she’s on. Hayden agrees that coverups of covert misdeeds imperil democracy, but concludes that “I never figured out a way” to expose such information to Americans without also giving it to “other people who didn’t have a right to that information who may actually use that image… to harm my country.”
While the film briefly discusses Wikileaks’s pre-Manning successes at exposing corporate misdeeds, Hayden’s comments reflect the core conflict behind the portion of the Wikileaks story where Gibney places his focus. It is barely indulged and instantly rebutted, and Gibney’s interviews turn Hayden’s focus on images in that quote against anyone who sympathizes with his position. One interviewee likens the government’s unjustifiable repression of footage of an Apache helicopter crew killing what turned out to be a Reuters camera crew and several civilians — an act the government had already acknowledged and declassified — to the George W. Bush administration’s work to prevent images of flag-draped coffins from appearing in newspapers.
It’s a strong counterpoint, and Gibney’s own sympathies seem to lie with it and with Manning, while using Assange as a toxic vessel in which Fto quarantine all other criticisms of what his organization does. We Steal Secrets entertains anti-Wikileaks arguments just enough to keep the film from being one-sided, while still working hard to win over skeptics.