There are a flurry of WikiLeaks movies on the way, including one from Steven Spielberg, so it is perhaps just as well that gifted documentary maker Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets has hit the screens first.
If anyone was going to tell a thorough story about Julian Assange, Private First Class Bradley Manning, and the series of leaks that rocked the intelligence world in 2010, it is Gibney, the man who has already exposed the mendacity of the Catholic Church in Mea Maxima Culpa and the arrogance of oil giant Enron in his previous films.
Three years ago, Manning, a gifted intelligence analyst working in Iraq, leaked dramatic footage of an American helicopter gunship opening fire on a group of people, two of whom turned out to be Reuters journalists, one of whose long-lens camera was mistaken for a weapon. The video became known as “Collateral Murder” and when Manning passed it to a hacker back home in the US, it became the first trickle in a flood of thousands upon thousands of sensitive US military documents which were to become freely available on Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks site and in mainstream media.
Gibney makes the story of what happened next truly riveting and he is never less than painstaking in his research. His talent for sourcing and using the right TV footage and talking to the right people is also admirable. However, it must have been hellishly frustrating to complete a story as complex as this one without access to the two main players – Manning and Assange; the WikiLeaks founder is still holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London and Manning is, of course, in a military prison awaiting trial on heavy-handed espionage charges.
It is his extraordinary story that makes up the backbone of the first half of We Steal Secrets. According to many who knew him in Iraq, the diminutive Private First Class avoided bullying about his size and his agonised confusion over his sexual identity by adopting a macho persona and ending up as one of the brightest intelligence operatives in the US Army. When he leaked the documents to prolific hacker Adrian Lamo, Manning though he had found a friend and someone who shared his disgust at illegal military operations.
However, in an act of what some call betrayal and others patriotism, Lamo reported him to the FBI. Lamo himself is a very fragile creature. He is diagnosed bipolar and during his interviews with Gibney, his big eyes fill up with tears as he recounts what happened to Manning, a young man with whom he had built up huge levels of trust and empathy during their covert e-mail exchanges.
It is these the e-mails that make for the most compelling moments in We Steal Secrets. Gibney has been given access to them and when we see the correspondence on screen, re-created in three-foot-tall letters scrolling out in a nervy tap-tap-tap, it is clear that Manning was slowly going mad in Iraq, enraged by the atrocities being commited in his country’s name but also addled by his own private demons. It is difficult to know if his motivations were wholly pure – perhaps he was partially spurred into action by his outsider status and, what appears to be, his deep unhappiness.
Assange, on the other hand, is a far less sympathetic and possibly only slightly less damaged character than Manning and Lamo. He is the very public and publicity-hungry face of WikiLeaks. Is he a crusader or an egotist? His followers rather hilariously describe him as “a rock star” but when we see him angered and affronted by the constant media attention, the knowing little smirk that constantly plays around his lips tells another story.
He is, of course, wanted for questioning in Sweden where he faces accusations of sexual misconduct. It’s a high-level conspiracy according to WikiLeaks but Gibney's interviews with Assange’s accusers are very revealing indeed. At one point in the film, this high-minded hacktavist who likes “crushing bastards” and “setting the truth free”, demands one million dollars to do an interview with Gibney. He also tries to get the filmmaker to spy on other interviewees and report back to him. It seems his version of the truth comes at a very high price indeed.
However, Gibney is not in the business of passing judgement – facts and opinions are relayed methodically and both WikiLeaks supporters and enemies give very frank interviews. In fact, the straightest talker in this film could very well be Michael Hayden, a former director of both the CIA and NSA who is blunt in his defence of the Realpolitick that has been America’s guiding light since 1945.
In fact, it is Hayden, and not Assange or one of his acolytes, who gives Gibney’s film its subtitle when he says, “Let me be very candid. We steal secrets. We steal other nation’s secrets. One cannot do that above board and be very successful for a very long period of time.”
In light of Edward Snowdon’s more recent and even more outrageous revelations about the NSA and the complicity of the web’s Big Five in sharing information about our private lives, Gibney’s film is well-timed. What we are left with is a tale of damaged people on one side and deeply-paranoid ones on the other, neither of whom seem to have stopped to truly consider the consequences of their actions or their convictions.