To review a documentary is always more difficult than to review a drama or a comedy. A work of fiction is a self-contained world. It stands or falls on its own. The purpose of a documentary, on the other hand, is to convey information that exists outside of the film. What’s more, We Steal Secrets is a documentary about a contentious, ongoing debate. Julian Assange and Wikileaks consider it to be so much of an unethical “hit piece” that they’ve published an annotated transcripts of the film correcting what they claim to be errors, selective editing, and outright fabrications. You can find it here.
If the purpose of a documentary is to boil a complex story down into a clear and coherent narrative, I think We Steal Secrets fails. After watching it twice, I find myself more confused them ever. I think this is partly the result of my own shortcomings. I’m not a Wikileaks junkie. I didn’t follow the Bradley Manning trial. But I think the director, Alex Gibney, has to share some of the blame. He’s very careless about identifying his talking heads. Had it not been for the annotated transcript of the film on the Wikileaks site, I don’t think I would have been able to tell who was who. Gibney adds to the confusion by piling minor details onto important milestones and important milestones onto minor details. The transitions are handled poorly. There is no consistent attempt to make distinctions between the opinions of the filmmaker himself and the subjects he interviews. In other words, We Steal Secrets is a mess.
But is it a hit piece?
Alex Gibney is not a right wing hack. In 2007, he made the excellent Taxi to the Dark Side about the murder of an Afghan taxi driver at the hands of United States troops at Bagram Airfield. That film took a clear position against torture. It was a clear, focused, passionate indictment of the United States occupation of Afghanistan. So what went wrong here? How did Alex Gibney manage to direct a film that Chris Hedges has labeled “agitprop for the security and surveillance state?”
The problems with We Steal Secrets begin right at the beginning, with the title. Julian Assange never said “we steal secrets.” The quote is from Michael Hayden, direct of the NSA, who told Gibney that the US government was in the business of ‘stealing secrets’ from other countries, something you can pick up if you watch the documentary closely. Gibney is too clever and a half. He wants to have it both ways. On one hand, he can mislead the public into believing that Julian Assange is an admitted thief. On the other hand, he can point out how he cleverly slipped an indictment of the NSA into the very title of the film itself. It doesn’t work. All it does it demonstrate the film maker’s unwillingness to take a clear stand on the story he claims to be telling us.
But I don’t think Gibney set out to write a hit piece. Rather, I think he set out to make a “serious documentary,” and got caught up in the form that “serious documentaries” so often take, a morality play. A better title for We Steal Secrets might have been “The Rise and Fall of Julian Assange.” Gibney is more in love with the idea of showing us messy, flawed human beings caught up in a grand historical drama than he is with the idea of throwing light on the story of Wikileaks and on American war crimes. Assange is the rags to riches story, the clever young man from Melbourne who parlayed his skills in hacking and agitprop into worldwide fame, then was brought down by his own hubris. Manning is the sexually confused teenager who rebels against authority because he lacks a clear identity, and, tragically, like Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause, winds up driving himself off a cliff.
The film begins in 1989, at the dawn of the Internet age, at the launch of the space shuttle Galileo, and with an attack on NASA’s computers that Gibney strongly implies, but never comes out and says involved Julian Assange. Assange, in fact, has denied having anything to do with the “Wank Worm.” Fast forward 20 years to the American occupation of Iraq and a young Army intelligence specialist, Chelsea, then named Bradley Manning. We meet a woman named Jihrleah Showman, Manning’s supervising NCO in Iraq. On the surface, Showman comes off as sympathetic, but she’s a hostile witness. Manning was later disciplined for assaulting her.
It’s here that the film wanders perilously close to “hit piece” territory. While we’re shown an unflattering photo of Manning clearly intended to make him appear to be emotionally unstable, Showman talks about his sexual confusion, his addiction to soda, his odd sleeping hours, and his lack of self-control. The strapping Showman — she brags about her 15 inch biceps — then tells us how the diminutive Manning punched her in the face, and how she got him in a headlock. What’s more, as the annotated transcript at the Wikileaks site points out, the documentary narrates the sequence of events in reverse. By the time he got into his fight with Showman, Manning had already leaked most of his information to Wikileaks. But here it’s made to look as if he was acting out of humiliation and revenge over having had his ass kicked by a girl.
Manning’s information leaked, we switch to the Julian Assange portion of the story. We’re shown a Guardian reporter, a former Wikileaks associate, a documentary film maker, an Australian professor, all relevant to the story, perhaps even ultimately sympathetic, but all presented in a way that conforms to the documentary’s overarching morality play. One after another tells us how impressed he was with Assange when they met, but then goes onto to express reservations about his eccentricity and, finally, regret over how his ego and paranoia destroyed Wikileaks and ultimately left him entombed inside the Ecuadorean embassy. There are long interviews with the two women Assange is accused of having sexually assaulted that tell us little about his guilt or innocence. There’s a lot of speculation about how how he might have intentionally broke condoms so he could leave his seed in as many places as possible. It’s strongly implied that he could be HIV positive, but we’re never told whether or not he is, or even if he’s been tested during the time he’s been under house arrest. We come away no more enlightened than we went in.
In fact, that’s just about the only good thing I’ll say about We Steal Secrets. It alerted me about my own ignorance. I went in confused, and I came out confused. I guess I have to go educate myself.