I can’t help but feel conned by Alex Gibney’s latest documentary. By the end of it’s protracted 130 minutes I wasn’t sure what I had just witnessed. Could it have been a story about some very brave young people who were not afraid to expose the truth behind the evils committed by great nations in the name of ‘freedom’ or was it a deliberate attempt by Gibney and his corporate masters to belittle these courageous whistle blowers? On reflection I would veer towards the later.
We did get the story of WikiLeaks international website which was set up as a drop point for those people who had access to information that they thought should be in the public domain and who wanted to remain anonymous. In return Wikileaks would publish the information for all to see. It was initiated in Iceland in 2006 by a small group of activists that included the Australian Julian Assange. It was Assange that was suspected of involvement in the 1989 WANK worm attack on the NASA computers that was originally thought to threaten the launch of the US spy satellite Galileo. The non profit making website has been involved, for example, in the Icelandic financial collapse, which involved three of the country’s major privately owned commercial banks, a Swiss banking tax evasion case, exposing Kenyan government corruption, a toxic waste dumping scandal and most famously Bradley Manning’s upload of Iraq and Afghanistan war documents, diplomatic e-mails and video footage including the terrible Collateral Murder video shot from an Apache helicopter gun sight clearly showing the deliberate killing of 12 or more civilians including two Reuters journalists in an Iraqi street and seriously wounding two young children much to the hilarity of the marines. WikiLeaks released both the original 38 minutes video and a shorter version, which were shown as part of the documentary.
So far so clear, but then Gibney decides to carry out a character assassination of Assange and Bradley Manning that’s really got nothing to do with the courageous work that they carried out, and nothing to do with the frightening reality that we can we be spied on with impunity or assassinated without warning. Manning is portrayed as a pitiful, naive and sexually confused young man. Assange is presented as a paranoid, vindictive megalomaniac and a sexual deviant. We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (2013) becomes political propaganda for the security and surveillance state! The film goes on to describe the attempt by ‘the authorities’ to extradite Assange on allegations of rape and how he is virtually under house arrest in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Manning was arrested and incarcerated in solitary confinement where he was brutalised, sparking an international outcry which President Obama refused to recognise for a long time.
Alex Gibney’s documentary tends to stretch ever-single point beyond its natural elasticity making what should be at least an interesting film, even if you do not agree with its political point of view, into one that’s monotonous just as he did to a certain extent with Mea Maxima Culpa (2012). But the best way for me to sum up my feelings about this documentary is to include a paragraph from an article by Chris Hedges an American journalist who specializes in American politics and society:
Gibney is unable to see that humans are a mixture of hubris and altruism, cowardice and courage, anger and love. There are no “pure” political figures—including Daniel Ellsberg. But there are people who, for reasons of conscience, discover the inner fortitude to defy tyranny at tremendous personal risk. Manning did this. Assange did this. They are not perfect human beings, but to dwell at length, as Gibney does, on their supposed psychological deficiencies and personal failings, while glossing over the vast evil they set themselves against, is an insidious form of character assassination. It serves the interests of the oppressors. Even if all the character flaws ascribed by Gibney to Manning and Assange are true—and I do not believe they are true—it does not diminish what they did.
Of course the story does not stop there, Edward Snowden another extremely brave young whistle blower has again raised public awareness about the governmental threat to our privacy and ultimately our freedom.