Academy Award-winning director Alex Gibney’s documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks lifts the lid on the whistle-blowing website and its founder Julian Assange…
Filmed with the startling immediacy of unfolding history, Academy Award-winning director Alex Gibney’s documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, details the creation of Julian Assange’s controversial website, which facilitated the largest security breach in American history. Hailed by some as a free-speech hero and others as a traitor and terrorist, the enigmatic Assange’s rise and fall are paralleled with that of PFC Bradley Manning, the brilliant, troubled young soldier who downloaded hundreds of thousands of documents from classified U.S. military and diplomatic servers, revealing the behind-the-scenes workings of the government’s international diplomacy and military strategy.
The title of the documentary is, in some ways, a quote from CIA Director Michael Hayden, who says during the documentary, “This is how it works. We steal secrets, we steal other nations’ secrets”, and throughout the documentary we are constantly getting candid interviews from all these various sources, showing their points of view on the subject. Crucially, the film doesn’t have any candid interviews with Julian Assange or Bradley Manning. The filmmaker’s claim they approached Julian Assange for an interview, but he requested a large amount of money in order to take part in the film. They couldn’t come to an agreement and as a result of that, the documentary has, at its heart, an absence.
The story is basically one of noble failure: that somebody starts out as a person who is very smart, single-minded and unusual but has this insatiable appetite for the freedom of information, and becomes, as described by journalist Mark Davis during an interview, “a rock star”. As this takes over, as certainly portrayed by the documentary, he starts to become guilty of exactly the things that he rails against. The documentary includes various interviews from people who work with Assange saying that he was completely controlling of the website, that he started to actually control information in exactly the way that he didn’t want to before. Meanwhile, in the middle of all this stuff going on with asylums and embassies, there becomes this Party line, which is that you’re either with us or against us, and that if you’re with us then you are wholly with us, and if you are against us at all, then you are wholly against us. The documentary then basically takes therefore, as its through line, a central character who has what can be seen as a clear dramatic arc, the noble folly or corruption, and it follows that line through.
The documentary has since received an awful lot of controversy as, for example, on Wikileaks itself there’s a declaration that the film itself is inaccurate. They dubbed the film’s portrayal of Manning’s alleged acts as a failure of character rather than a triumph of conscience, and that it presents a dangerous proposition for all journalists and media organisations and not just Wikileaks. So essentially, they’ve said that the film is completely wrong and that audiences must be sceptical about its point of view and accusations. Equally on the other side, you have the argument about whether or not it is possible to say whether some of the stuff these people did was either right or wrong, and that even now, the dust still hasn’t settled. But at the moment, it is clear that not everything is absolutely clear.
What’s great about the documentary is that Alex Gibney is a very good and intelligent storyteller; he’s somebody who has managed to negotiate paths through the most complicated stories in the past and personally, he’s a very trustworthy filmmaker based on the films he’s made before. He is someone who has integrity and what he has constructed in the documentary is a dramatic arc about a central character and a story, which essentially investigates that idea. Whether or not you agree with the portrayal of Julian Assange is really not the point of the film, and as long as people judge this film entirely on the basis of which side they are on is, in the end, sort of a pointless discussion. As a piece of filmmaking, it is a really interesting look at one perceived version of this character arc. It does have, at its centre, an absence because it isn’t interviewing its central subject, but arguably, that’s kind of used to the film’s advantage because what you get in the end, is an absence where Julian Assange’s character ought to be. After the film’s release, it caused debate about whether it should’ve stood up for Assange or whether it didn’t really do him justice, but really, it is an intelligent piece of filmmaking and anything that provokes debate is a good thing. What Gibney has managed to do is find, not the arc, but an arc through a very complicated story and tell it in a way that is truly cinematic. We Steal Secrets is one of the best documentaries of recent years.
Written by Ryan Pollard
Directed by: Alex Diney
Written by: n/a
Released: 2013 / Genre: Documentary / Country: USA / IMDB