Film Review - We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks



   To many, the story of Wikileaks can be filed neatly into one of two views. The first, and most widely spouted, is that Julian Assange is a hero of democracy who, due to his whistle-blowing work with Wikileaks, should not be held accountable to any atrocities he commits in his personal life. The second, a view held by many on the more extreme wings of political thinking, is that Assange is no better than a terrorist, recklessly undermining the security of the innocent, and the only solution to the problem of his existence is assassination.

   Alex Gibney, in his new documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, attempts to show that neither of these views are entirely correct. He also, rather beautifully, unspools Wikileaks' story to show that it's about much more than just one man, giving equal weight to the tale of Bradley Manning. Whilst Assange is often nothing more than an oleaginous self-publicist, Manning has not been offered the opportunity to grandstand in public, having his liberty taken away from him whilst he awaits trial for his part in leaking democratic cables to the wider public. It's part of a wider tragedy that Manning's story is much lesser heard than Assange's attempts to recast himself as a noble Count of Monte Cristo-esque figure (despite his fondness for having unprotected sex with women whilst they sleep).

   The narrative takes place in parallel action, telling the tale of two young and confused men who find the voyage into adulthood a difficult one. One side of the story is that of Assange, the petulant spoilt brat who finds, on the road to fame, a growing egotism, sense of entitlement and a martyr complex which he is willing to play up to increasingly in heavily orchestrated performances - he's an "ageing student hobo turned rock star". Overnight, his name went from that of known within very niche online circles, to one featured in headlines across the globe when his organisation, Wikileaks, published some of the most explosive governmental details ever to make their way to the popular press - all thanks to a would-be anonymous whistle-blower.

   From his roots as an idealistic young hacker, Assange has grown to become a man who is willing to shed each and every one of his former principles - Wikileaks, an organisation founded on transparency of others, becomes a paranoid shell with employees and volunteers forced to sign non-disclosure agreements and interviews with its personnel are heavily sanctioned (with "market rates" of up to $1m suggested for conversations with Assange himself). When faced with sexual charges, Assange goes on the run and transforms himself into a cause de celebre with many superficial left wingers supporting his lifestyle rather than asking him to take accountability of his actions; they are unable to see - in part due to Assange's cult of personality - that it's possible to separate the Australian's private life from his public work and judge them as exclusive entities. Whilst the work of Wikileaks as an organisation can be viewed as having noble intentions, it is still possible the man behind it lacks gravitas and integrity in his private life. Gibney's film suggest that, horrifically, Assange has often slyly attempted to blur the lines between himself and the organisation - individuals looking to donate towards a project aimed at opening up democracy will ultimately be giving legal funding for a man seeking to avoid punishment for his treatment of women.

   The reverse side of the story is that of Bradley Manning. A young American military man, struggling with identity and gender issues, Manning becomes alarmed at the actions of his own country and his morals urge him to do something about this. Working with Wikileaks, Manning begins to forward many United States cables, each detailing potentially humiliating facts, with the hope that exposing these injustices will make the world a better place. Ultimately, his naivety is his undoing as a hacker he knows online, Adrian Lamo, betrays his confidence and exploits the wounded private before handing him over to the authorities. The sad tale of Manning, a man being punished for doing what he believes to be the right thing, acts as a wonderful reverse shot to that of Assange who will willingly shift his morals to avoid accountability and will do anything, including holing himself up in the Ecuadorean embassy, to weasel himself out of trouble his changing beliefs land him in. Rather sadly, Assange et al show little concern for Manning at all - it's the same negligent approach they take to adding redactions to leaked cables which allowed for the publication  of many names who should have been protected with confidentiality.

   Whilst We Steal Secrets is gloriously illuminating, Gibney's film, however, is at its weakest when it begins to speculate rather than present concrete evidence. Why, for example, does this film include a section speculating that Assange may have tried to purposefully impregnate the women he is accused of raping to leave behind something physical in his digital existence and present this like it's fact? Such wild guesses detract from a very serious line of study, undermining the better detective work available here.

   It's clear that in the full story of Wikileaks, the one that is not often told, is that there is a real hero and a real villain to its tale, and maybe not the expected ones. Assange, for all the headlines, does his cause more harm than good; a callous, egotistical fraud so concerned with being accepted as a global hero that he allows any virtues he may have had to be blinded. The real man of courage, conversely, is Bradley Manning - the oft forgotten man who is paying for his integrity and morals in a way Assange will always cowardly avoid doing.

* Wikileaks have released this annotated transcript of the film with correction points for those who are interested. It seems to be a matter of semantics for the most part and, again, more obsessed with protecting the man, Assange, than the organisation and it's work as a whole.
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