Sunday, November 24, 2013

Film Review: We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (2013)

In addition to being frightfully prolific, often making three or four documentaries a year, Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side) has always struck me as a decidedly measured filmmaker. Even when he tackles a subject that enrages him, such as the Enron scandal or torture, he treats it with a remove that gets his point across without becoming a polemicist. He applies this same approach in We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks to the history of the eponymous website and its founder Julian Assange, as well as that of Chelsea Manning, the US Soldier who leaked thousands of classified documents to the website and was sentenced to 35 years in prison for doing so. This results in an overview of the organisation and these personalities that displays an even tone, and a broad sense of the issues at play regarding leaking, though it doesn't offer a great deal in the way of insight.

WikiLeaks and Assange did not have anything to do with We Steal Secrets (Gibney claims towards the end of the film that Assange asked for a fee of one million dollars to be interviewed) so most of the people interviewed are past members of the website, such former spokesman Daniel Domscheit-Berg, journalists who have worked with WikiLeaks to release documents, and members of the intelligence community. Unsurprisingly, these disparate interviewees have conflicting views on the aims and activities of WikiLeaks. Gibney's selection of subjects makes for a somewhat lopsided approach  - there are relatively few passionate defenders included, and even the most enthusiastic tend towards the "WikiLeaks is a great, important idea that has lost its way or been subsumed into Assange's cult of personality" end of the spectrum - but it does offer a quick, accessible overview of the strata of opinion surrounding WikiLeaks and leaking in general: the point at which freedom of speech and information advocates bump up against the very real possibilities of endangering peoples' lives, and the way in which governments give rise to something like WikiLeaks by hiding vital, important information from their people. (It also touches on the question of why it is considered illegal to release a video of America troops firing on civilians, yet perfectly fine to release a book describing the same incident.)

Assange, meanwhile, appears only in archive footage, becoming a sort of white-haired specter haunting the story of his own life. We Steal Secrets has been picked apart very thoroughly by WikiLeaks, who released an annotated transcript detailing everything they found objectionable about the film (and, if my experience is anything to go by, they will happily tweet it to you if you casually mention that you've watched the film) but I found the treatment of Assange to be fairly balanced, in that it doesn't depict him as either a dangerous extremist or a martyr. Obviously, they're drawing from a fairly limited well of material, including existing interviews and home movie style footage shot by people around Assange, so there's little potential for a clip to depict him in a wholly bad light, but the footage, combined with plenty of interviews of people talking about Assange, paints a picture of an idealist pursuing his belief in freedom and civil rights with tremendous zeal and enthusiasm, achieving a degree of fame and recognition and becoming very much a 'personality' as a result.

There's a certain degree of egomania intrinsic to that arc, but We Steal Secrets is nowhere near the hatchet job that it could have been. Gibney, as someone who has spent much of his career exposing corruption and abuses of power, seems fairly sympathetic to the WikiLeaks cause, but he's perhaps uncertain about whether it is being pursued in the correct way, and his approach seems designed to explore the responses to WikiLeaks, rather than to make a judgement on whether or not it is objectively a good or bad thing. To that end, he offers as many interpretations of the situation as possible, giving screentime to, for example, both the Swedish women who accused Assange of sexual assault and the people who claim that they are CIA plants who are part of a vast conspiracy to discredit Assange and, by association, the entire WikiLeaks project. In this and other matters, Gibney presents the information, but by and large seems to leave interpretation open to the audience.

His treatment of Chelsea Manning is a little more troubling, though. As pointed out in that annotated transcript, which is very much worth a read as a companion piece/corrective to the film (though one to be taken with a pinch of salt since it is very defensive), most of the photos Gibney uses to illustrate Manning's life and ultimate decision to leak tend to be ones in which she looks slightly unhinged, subconsciously suggesting (whether intentional or not) that her actions were less to do with a sense of moral outrage over the things she saw, than as a result of being mentally unbalanced. Again, Gibney seems to be fairly sympathetic to Manning's actions - as evidenced by his depiction of Adrian Lamo, the former hacker who reported Manning to Army Counterintelligence, as manipulative and untrustworthy - but he still makes choices in his representation of her which seem suspect, and much less balanced than his depiction of the arguably more troublesome figure of Assange.

Despite some questionable choices on Gibney's part - not least of which being the title, which is said in relation to the actions of the CIA and arguably misrepresents WikiLeaks' practices - We Steal Secrets is a compelling, generally cool-headed and even-handed examination of several divisive subjects. The relative lack of WikiLeaks involvement prevents it from being truly inclusive or comprehensive, but it offers a great deal of perspective, something which is often lost in any mainstream discussion of WikiLeaks and the need for transparency.

Grade: B-