DVD: WE STEAL SECRETS: THE STORY OF WIKILEAKS (M)
JULIAN Assange expressed his dislike of Alex Gibney’s documentary about the WikiLeaks phenomenon.
He refused to appear in it, he says, because of his conviction Gibney was going to produce ‘‘a pretty sleazy result’’.
Jemima Khan, who is Gibney’s executive producer as well as one of the supporters who posted bail for Assange after his London arrest, has a different slant on their failure to do business together.
‘‘Assange endlessly messed Alex around,’’ she said.
‘‘He wanted extensive editorial control and intel [intelligence] on the other interviewees, which I knew Alex would never agree to. In the end, it became increasingly difficult and negotiations broke down.’’
However the story went, the prickly arrogance Assange displays in interviews would have been an uneasy fit with Gibney’s style, which is about analysing rather than lionising, and the thoroughness with which he scrutinises the psychological make-up of his cast of characters.
Gibney specialises in the slow but inexorable build-up. We Steal Secrets is typical. The first 20minutes or so look like hagiography. Then the picture tilts, the light shifts and harsher outlines take shape.
It’s not only about Assange and the dynamics of the WikiLeaks set-up. These share centre stage with the even more tantalising figure of Bradley Manning, who has so far paid a much higher price than Assange for the sake of freedom of information.
Why did he turn whistleblower? Several of his fellow soldiers appear in the film, recalling a man made miserable by bullying, loneliness and his growing conviction he should have been born female. They all agree he should never have been given access to the encrypted files he released to WikiLeaks. But there is no denying the strength of his conviction, or the importance of what he did in leaking Collateral Murder, the notorious video of the botched Baghdad air strike that killed more than a dozen people in 2007, among them two Reuters journalists.
Gibney replays the footage – justifiably, for no amount of repetition can diminish the casual brutality of the US helicopter gunship crew’s banter as they pick off their victims as if taking out targets in a video game.
By the way, the film’s title, We Steal Secrets, does not refer to WikiLeaks’ modus operandi. The words are used by General Michael Hayden, a former director of the CIA.
‘‘Let me be very candid,’’ he said.
‘‘We steal secrets. We steal other nations’ secrets. One cannot do that above board and be very successful for a very long period of time.’’
Of Assange’s Australian defenders, the staunchest are the academic Robert Manne and the journalist Mark Davis, who says he was worried by the need to protect the identities of people mentioned in the leaked documents and that he laboured long and hard in making these redactions. More caustic are The Guardian and The New York Times journalists who worked with Assange on the documents’ publication and are now completely at odds with him because of the stories they have published about the difficulties of collaborating with him.
Initially, Assange did not think it necessary to make the redactions, they say – hence the rush to get the job done when he finally changed his mind. The two Swedish women involved in the sex charges against him appear with their faces obscured to say they would never have gone to the police if he had agreed to take an HIV test. This leads to the film’s most controversial suggestion – that Assange erred by turning the charges into a human rights issue. Consequently his supporters have since gone on to accuse Gibney of downplaying the possibility of his imprisonment in the US should Sweden extradite him.
Just as contentious are the reminiscences offered up by Assange’s former WikiLeaks colleagues. While there are few surprises in Gibney’s interviews with Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who split with Assange some time ago, his dissatisfactions are reiterated by others in the group. The general tenor of their complaints is over Assange’s ability to command the headlines with his personal predicament at the expense of the cause that brought them all together in the first place. WikiLeaks, they think, has become conflated with the Julian Assange Effect.
The film has provoked mixed reactions. Assange supporters see it as a hatchet job. It’s also been criticised as being little more than a rehash. It certainly lacks the narrative punch of Gibney’s earlier films, and its attempts to compare and contrast Assange’s character and circumstances with those of Manning makes it feel cumbersome in places.
But given that Gibney could not interview either of his main players, it’s remarkably compelling.