In the Alan Moore graphic novel Watchmen, society turns against the masked superheroes fighting crime, and rally behind the slogan, “Who watches the Watchmen?” Moore’s literary work explores the slippery slope consequences of a person or group of people who take it upon themselves to regulate certain facets of society, and how power without the safety of checks and balances can corrupt in even the most ideal circumstances. Alex Gibney’s latest documentary, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, actually explores many of these same themes via an examination of WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange, and asks a number of difficult questions about privacy, national security, and information access in the 21st century.
By now, most have at least heard of WikiLeaks, if only in relation to the leaking of classified documents to that open source website by a U.S. Army PFC named Bradley Manning. Putting that aside for the first chunk of the film, Gibney’s documentary instead develops like a biographical piece, exploring Julian Assange’s early days as a rogue Aussie hacker, and his evolution into an international truth-crusader. The movie tracks Assange’s maturation into a full-time pursuer of sensitive corporate and/or government information, which he hoped to release to the world via his anonymous information-sharing internet platform, WikiLeaks.
The idea was elegantly genius, for with the help of another computer whiz, Assange created a site where a person could anonymously drop information onto the WikiLeaks server in such a way that even Assange could not know who sent it. The encryption method of WikiLeaks kept the submission of all information perfectly secret, an important component of a site offering an opportunity to share potentially shocking or career-ending data without fear of reprisal. Yet what began as a movement to get the truth out to the underprivileged and uninformed quickly devolved into one man’s power-play against “the establishment” and the world as a whole.
Gibney’s documentary explores a number of the morally and ethically sticky situations WikiLeaks and Assange found themselves in once they were in possession of roughly half a million American cables and dispatches. Although Assange wisely teamed up with an established group of media outlets that included Der Spiegl and the New York Times prior to the release of this massive leak, the Aussie hacker’s obstinate stance on the purity of “truth” and openness threatened the credibility of his position. For example, some of these military reports and cables listed the names of Iraqi and Afghani community leaders who had cooperated with Coalition forces, the revelation of which threatened the lives of hundreds, if not thousands.
We Steal Secrets unfolds in such a way that by the halfway point, the audience begins to understand that what may have started out as a noble idea quickly mutated into one man’s crusade to develop an international celebrity. This Assange did on the back of a poorly-thought out political agenda: one that could only be described as a damn-the-torpedoes brand of anarchy. The film does a wonderful job exploring how the success of WikiLeaks only served to expose some of the more frightening aspects of Assange’s personality, which include severe paranoia, megalomania, and unrestrained selfishness.
As for the leaks themselves, a moral judgment on Assange, and a weighing of the pros and cons of trafficking in classified information, Gibney leaves judgment up to the viewer, which is perhaps the strongest point of the film. Although We Steal Secrets does offer compelling evidence to support the claim that Assange may have indeed acted inappropriately when pursuing intimate relations with a couple of girls in Sweden, it never takes a side on the issue. No, it instead allows the viewer to understand how that event changed things for WikiLeaks and the man behind it, and the film is much better for it.
Indeed, it would be impossible to tell this story without mentioning the sexual misconduct allegations, for Assange is presently holed up in an Ecuadorian embassy in a bid to dodge extradition on those very same charges. Whether one believes the allegations about it all being a frame-job or not, or whether a person feels that Assange is no more culpable than the editor of a media outlet who gets their hands on a juicy scoop: it doesn’t really matter. Great documentaries don’t achieve such distinction because they offer easy answers, instead, they rise thus because they pose very interesting, difficult questions. That’s what Gibney’s done with We Steal Secrets, which is a very smartly arranged, well researched, thought-provoking documentary.
Strictly from the talent side of things, Gibney does a wonderful job assembling people from both sides of the debate for talking-head interviews in his picture. The former Classification Czar, J. William Leonard, and Assange’s one-time media mouthpiece, James Ball, both offer fascinating behind-the-scenes perspectives of what each side saw as their overriding mission when confronting the morally vulnerable issue of censorship. The one issue Gibney’s doc does seem to take an overt stance on is the fate of Bradley Manning, who by all accounts was simply a confused, horrified, disillusioned young man who thought he was doing the right thing by leaking the information he did.
A criminal, to be sure, for any soldier that steals and reveals military information and passes it along to strangers is one who should indeed stand tall before the man, yet Bradley Manning set something in motion that can no longer be undone. For good or ill, Manning “peeked behind the curtain” of a modern American military operation, was disgusted by what he saw, and shared much of it with the world. Manning answered the call of “Who watches the Watchmen?” and unleashed an unholy shit storm that Assange, the U.S., and most of the world is still trying to sort out.
Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks endeavors to help audience members untangle things a bit, and decide for themselves.