What does a cross dressing US soldier, Lady gaga, the Arab Springs and a sexual assault charge have in common? They form part of the narrative of the Alex Gibney documentary “We Steal Secrets the Wikileaks story”.
The documentary tries to explore both sides of the persona of Julian Assange – a Man who in 2010 was touted to be named the “Person of the year” only to be replaced by Mark Zuckerberg head of Facebook a social media giant accused of complicity in helping the US government to spy on its own people.
There are essentially two focal points to the documentary, the rise and fall of Julian Assange-the weird white haired Australian and the story of Bradley Manning a soldier with the American army who leaked classified documents on the Afghan and Iraq “war on terror” which brought to light the actual number of casualties of the war as opposed to the severely underreported “official” numbers.
Wikileaks hit the headlines when they released evidence of wrong doings against Icelandic banks which triggered the 2008 financial meltdown. Then it gained primetime coverage when they released a video of the US army apache helicopter attack on Reuters reporters in Afghanistan. With the spotlight firmly focused on Wikileaks the rockstar-ish almost meteoric rise to fame of the editor of Wikileaks Julian Assange and the consequent downfall following the sexual assault charges forms a larger part of the focus than the real tragic hero Bradley Manning.
The story is interspersed with the chat conversation transcript that Bradley Manning had while coming to grips with his gender identity disorder and the fact that with his access to the US security database he had incriminating evidence which implicated the US government of serious wrong doings. There are accounts of those closest to Manning and somehow it paints a picture of a naïve sexually confused man rather than that of a young man who had access to the holy grail and through an act of conscious laid bare the biggest expose on the classified secrets in the history of mankind.
Alex Gibney is the Oscar winning director of the 2007 documentary which exposed the torture techniques employed by Bush-Cheney as part of the war on terror. There have been scathing attacks on both the movie and Gibney as being an agitprop for the US secret services to malign the names of both Assange and Manning. While I don’t completely agree with that stance I do believe that Gibney’s narrative confuses the message he seems to be trying to deliver. Gibney does well to give equal time to champion the cause of the initial Wikileaks’ expose and then to the on-going legal troubles that assail Assange. He also does well to highlight the hypocrisy of the US government in isolating Assange in the vilification as “enemy of the state” and leaving UK’s The Guardian and the New York Times out of the equation. But the last third of the movie where he focuses more on the rape-charges and Assange’s growing paranoia and in my opinion and understandable accusation that the charges are nothing more than a “honey-trap” is where Gibney crosses over to the dark side and muddles the balanced portrayal of the first 2/3rd of the movie. Manning at this point is only an after-thought.
Some think of Assange as this modern-day revolutionary who by promoting free speech will bring about a paradigm shift in the world democracy, while others are just as willing to vilify him as a paranoid deviant personality who leaked confidential documents which could hypothetically damage US national security. The documentary tries its hand at exploring both the possibilities. The conclusion about Assange will depend not so much on the documentary but rather on your own political inclinations. But there should be no such conundrum about Bradley Manning who had more courage than we can ever imagine possessing.