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If you’ve been a practising Luddite for the last five years, We Steal Secrets is a relatively harmless way to catch up on one of the most important events to have shaped the information age.
Is the NSA or GCHQ recording you reading this review? Could this piece be a CIA-funded, right-wing smearcampaign against Assange? Or is it a pro-Assange example of cultural hacktivism? Thankfully, We Steal Secrets: The WikiLeaks Story isn’t narrated with the paranoid I-know-that-you-know-that-I-knowism that it discusses. Instead writer, director and producer Alex Gibney tells the story straight with a close attention to the ironies. The film traces the rise and fall of Julian Assange, casting him as tragic hero incarnate. Synchronised with this is the slow breakdown of Bradley Manning, his troubled life and his thoughts and feelings revealed through text and emoticons from personal conversations. If you’ve been a practising Luddite for the last five years, We Steal Secrets is a relatively harmless way to catch up on one of the most important events to have shaped the information age.
We Steal Secrets starts with the speculation that Julian Assange started his life as a radical hacker who irritating NASA. Was Assange part of the group that created the “WANK worm” (WANK standing for Worms Against Nuclear Killers), which crashed NASA’s computers before the plutonium-powered Galileo shuttle blasted into space? Probably, since in a later interview Assange quotes the worm’s signature – “you talk of times for peace and prepare for war” – word for word. From here we follow Assange and his site WikiLeaks on the tech-guru trail, where he mildly undermines companies, banks and developing nations one Power Point presentation at a time. Meanwhile, US-army computer whizz Manning’s text messages appear more and more frequently on screen, always distraught and directionless. He has found himself with a military identity that he cannot reconcile with his moral ideals, and he has found himself in a male body he feels should be female.
To anyone new to the intriguing case of Assange and Manning, the film provides answers to the primary questions you might ask and provides enough emotion to understand why these issues of confidentially and openness are so important. A previously classified video that shows a US Apache helicopter gunning down rebels, who would later be revealed as journalists and cameramen, is repeatedly screened. These clips never lose their power and at this point your fist is in the air and your pro-Assange chants are gaining volume. Later, as we see Assange staring out of the Ecuadorian embassy, isolated and paranoid, having alienated some of his closest friends, you realise that nothing is as black and white as text on a screen.
If this is yesterday’s news to you, there are still some interesting revelations. The extent of Manning’s Gender Identity Disorder is explored and discussed but never used as an excuse for his actions. And there are details brought to light that have been lost in the stream of media attention, such as the fact that long before WikiLeaks revealed the video, the actions of the US Apache helicopter had been reported in a book, The Good Soldiers by Pulitzer prize-winning journalist David Finkel. And Gibney says that when Assange was holed up in a grand country mansion, the white-haired radical quoted him £1 million for an interview. Understandably there was no interview.
We Steal Secrets lingers on the many ironies of the story but never makes a direct point of them. To discipline a member of the WikiLeaks teams, Assange uses the wording of the 1917 Secrets Act, accusing Daniel Domscheit-Berg of “disloyalty, insubordination and destabilisation in a time of crisis.” The right-wing media repeatedly screams that Assange has “blood on his hands”, ignoring the footage of the Apache helicopter (an attack the US has found to be within its laws of engagement). And so on. Gibney focuses on these ironies without ever openly voicing his dislike for Assange, but the cynicism builds until you find yourself hiding your Assange mask with your “Yes We Can” badges and Liberal Democrat stickers. The narration and the talking heads invariably talk about WikiLeaks and Assange in the past tense, as if the Ecuadorian embassy is limbo or his final resting place.
Gibney had solid moral ground on which to stand in his Oscar-winning film Taxi To The Dark Side. There was the simple and harrowing story of innocent Dilawar tortured to death. In Taxi, any cynicism brought about by the military’s corrupt treatment of Dilawar was mitigated by the fact the truth was being told. We Steal Secrets finds itself in much murkier territory. The major players are searching for integrity and find themselves compromised. Assange is an idealist flirting with nations that practise media suppression. Manning has a conscious too big for his unstable emotions. The US army wants to be more open with the public, but it doesn’t want to give “the enemy” any intelligence.
So who is the “enemy?” It would have garnered less attention but been much more interesting if We Steal Secrets had addressed this sort of neglected question instead of turning its focus to portraying Assange as the paranoid hacker. What is the legal case for and against Manning (increasingly pressing as Moscow airport becomes “The Snowden Residence”)? What of WikiLeaks earlier successes with the Trafigura toxic waste scandal and unveiling corruption in Kenya, mentioned in passing? Has al-Qaeda no interesting secrets? And for all the talk of censorship, we hear nothing about North Korea, China, Zimbabwe, Eritrea, Saudia Arabia and Myanmar.
We Steal Secrets has plenty of secrets to tell. But like WikiLeaks, what it reveals we feel we already knew. The last place Bradley Manning belonged was in the US army? Julian Assange has a bit of a God-complex? War breeds atrocities? Really – who knew?