We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks Movie Review

Featuring: Julian Assange, Adrian Lamo, Bradley Manning, Michael Hayden, James Ball, Mark, Davis, Timothy Douglas Webster
Director: Alex Gibney
Cinematography: Maryse Alberti
Website: www.westealsecretsmovie.com.au/
Australian release date: Thursday, 4th July

Reviewers’ one-word summations
rolanstein: thought-demanding
Karen: gripping

Review 1: (rolanstein)
Recorded history in any form is necessarily selective in the content it presents. Thus, the view of the historian – the selector – is unavoidably imposed on their work by the material included (and the way it is presented and contextualised), and by that omitted.

In choosing to tell the WikiLeaks story mostly through multiple and often contradictory interviewee perspectives, director Alex Gibney attempts to transcend these generic limitations as far as possible, and pursue an ideal of fairness and balance. Indeed, this modus operandi is largely forced upon him due to a lack of access to the two characters at the centre of this complex still-unfolding real-time hacker drama, Julian Assange and Bradley Manning. For those who have just exited their cave, Assange is currently holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in a bid to avoid extradition to Sweden to face sex charges he claims are bogus and could result in his further extradition to the US, and Manning has just gone to trial in the US for disseminating top secret military data and video subsequently leaked to the world via Assange’s WikiLeaks website.

The composite pictures built up of Assange and Manning through a combination of archival footage and interviews with personal contacts, journos-in-the-know and key players in the WikiLeaks drama, both friends and foes, are the most fascinating aspects of this always rivetting doco.

Manning’s online relationship with hacker Adrian Lamo is brilliantly managed through a seamless reconstruction of their screen chat. Once Lamo realises that Manning has some dynamite military information that he is willing to make available to WikiLeaks, he is faced with a moral dilemma. Should he respond in kind to Manning confiding in him, or turn Judas in the national interest?

And what of Manning’s motivation for spilling the beans to Lamo, whom he’s never met? Bit by bit, he is revealed as a deeply troubled soul who feels desperately isolated and turns to a stranger on the net for solace. This insight into Manning the person puts a very human face to what many consider a monstrous crime of treason, and others see as the heroic act of a courageous whistleblower. In fact, there are no heroes or villains here – only damaged, flawed people who find themselves most improbably in positions of dizzy power. Their actions are informed as much by personal agendas as ethics or ideals – and I mean both Manning’s and Lamo’s (who in the most recent interviews is a glazed-eyed, slurring, medicated mess).

Charismatic cybercultural rock star Assange is a different kettle of fishiness, a mercurial figure who resists exposition but whose motivations also derive from both personal agenda and lofty idealism. Ever the polarising enigmatic figure, transformed by the media, both mainstream and social, into a creature of myth (partly self-propagated), he is impossible to pin down. For some he is untouchable, a noble freedom-of-information activist hero forcing the States to come clean to its people and the world on its war crimes and deceptions. For others he is an IT terrorist guilty of treason, prepared to put lives in danger by recklessly blowing the top on classified information that could be used against the States and the West by its enemies.

If Gibney takes a position – and I think he does – it is through the film’s attempts to reveal the man behind the propagandist ravings of both sides. Perhaps the most telling line of all is one of relatively few uttered by Assange himself: he is “combative”, he states, someone who “likes crushing bastards.”

This moves to one of the central concerns of the movie. That is, the burden of responsibility of those with immense power to choose between idealism and pragmatism, or in more topical terms, fundamentalism and moderation. When Assange is suddenly availed of the opportunity to blow the lid on US classified information, he finds himself in the position of one of the despised super-empowered bastards he is committed to crushing.

Now it is he who must choose whether the secret information at his disposal should be made public in its entirety, or edited. His initial reaction is to remain purist in his approach – to dump the lot online. His response to those urging him to redact the names of Iraqi citizens who may be endangered by the release of classified information is to play God with their lives, which he justifies by lumping them in with “the bastards.” He reasons that if they have been helping the American occupiers they are the (his) enemy and deserve to be killed. Thus, he politicises his actions, unarguably.

Does that make him a terrorist then, rather than a champion of transparency? Is becoming the enemy you despise a simple function of access to power? Is it inevitable that absolute power corrupts absolutely?

These are among the critical questions that the film raises. There are no easy answers trotted out; the onus is on the viewer to decide for themselves. And in so doing, you may find yourself in the uncomfortable position of siding with former CIA head Michael Hayden. He gives the boo-hiss gallery plenty to vent about, but on some basic issues of State censorship and withholding of information he comes across as both ruthless and logical in his pragmatism, hurt as it may to admit it. And if you’ve bought the Assange line on the invalidity of the sex charges brought against him in Sweden, be prepared to be unsettled. It is not so easy to dismiss the complainants as Jezebels, mere CIA pawns, when you see them interviewed.

Don’t miss this. It’s an intense ride that is not always easy (keeping track of who’s who among the many interviewees is a challenge at times), but its great strength emerges post-viewing – this is as thought-provoking a movie as I’ve seen, raising some of the most important questions of our time. You’ll be turning them over for days.

And I’ve gotta say, I don’t think I’ve come across any film that more effectively puts the case for democracy and its inbuilt brakes on individual power, albeit implicitly.

Review 2: Karen
If you want to have an opinion about the trial of Bradley Manning (coming to a TV screen near you nightly), then make sure you go and see We Steal Secrets. I confess I’ve skated over the detail of the WikiLeaks saga. Sure, I’ve seen grabs on television current affairs shows, and read the odd news or feature article – just enough to know the names of the main players and the gist of the story. So thank goodness for the long-form documentary that not only tells the story in a plain, intelligible style, but also does it in a cogent fashion that allows deep themes to emerge for the audience to mull over. We Steal Secrets, by filmmaker Alex Gibney, is a superb example of the genre.

That plain style – a chronological laying out of the facts (with occasional flashbacks where necessary to pick up on the background of new information), talking heads first-person accounts, and historical footage from news and other documentary sources – is enlivened with graphic representations of the internet, and, crucially, of the correspondence between Bradley Manning and Adrian Lamo. It’s mesmerising. There’s so little voice-over narrative that the accounts feel like testimony, and have that ring of truth – even if we might disagree with the witness. (I’m not singling out former CIA director Michael Hayden here. Oh no I’m not. But really, he’s either disingenuous or a fabulist.)

They also unfold at a pace – the camera holds the face of the speaker past his or her words – that invites the audience to contemplate the deeper truths behind what’s said, and the implications that flow from it. It felt incredibly intimate and voyeuristic. While the accounts were clearly edited from interviews, the absence of the interviewer and the close-up shots place the watcher as though in the conversation, while cutaways and different angles give a degree of removal that enables reflection or perhaps even judgement.

What was most fascinating to me was that this tale of electronic infiltration of the vast military industrial complex and exfiltration of its secrets, and the consequences for world affairs, boils down to individuals and how they fit or fail to fit in our (that is, first-world, US-hegemonic) culture.

Bradley Manning, the individual who stole the secrets (and I say individual on purpose because he is the one in question here, while others who do it “legally” and otherwise are outside the scope if not the notice of this documentary), is revealed by his own words as a highly intelligent, highly disturbed and vulnerable human being, whom some see as a traitor to his country, and some as a hero. Me, I thought of The Universal Soldier: “He’s five foot two and he’s six feet four…” and was inclined to think that if more soldiers acted, as Manning did, on their doubts about the ethics of war, then wars would be very hard to prosecute.

Then there’s Adrian Lamo, similarly intelligent, disturbed and vulnerable – and sick and drugged later – wielding a terrible agency, motivated by patriotism to become the biggest dobber ever.

Neither was arrogant, whereas Julian Assange, as his supporters and his detractors observe him, comes across as much more worldly wise. “He was a rock star,” says one, “picking the fruit” – women, that is, who flocked to touch him and be touched…or used. Love him or hate him, you have to admit he’s charismatic. Without a dedicated interview with Assange, the filmmakers have done well to source archival footage to give a broad representation of the key player.

This is gripping stuff about fallible, emotional human beings that will have you talking for weeks.

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