Re:View – ‘We Steal Secrets: The Story Of WikiLeaks’
I missed this in cinemas, so now is a good time to catch up. It’s a documentary about the biggest war in the world; not the Afghan war, but the information war, and who gets to control the first global system of mass communication. The story starts with the history of a minuscule website dedicated to to total freedom of information, run by borderline-autistic computer hackers with a utopian goal. After their big break comes with, first, details of corruption in the bankrupt Icelandic banks, then horrific video footage of an US helicopter attack on unarmed Afghan civilians, the tortured Bradley Manning emerges from the shadows to join Julian Assange as polarising heroes/villains in the struggle for information dominance.
The great strength of Alex Gibney’s documentary is its objective clarity in summarising the key facts in a complex emotive issue. He effectively defuses the deliberately misleading side-issues, Sweden’s trumped-up sexual assault charge for Assange and Manning’s conflicted gender crisis, to concentrate on the story’s core; whether a moral obligation to tell the truth in a lie-filled information age can be turned against itself.
It could have resulted in a plethora of close-ups of men tapping keyboards, but Gibney visualises the internet as an internal solar system of lonely interconnected routes, and prints out Manning’s increasingly sad messages over images of the war. The result, mixed with interviews and news coverage, makes the film visually arresting.
Certain disingenuities appear along the way; press determination to hitch a ride on Assange’s shooting star keenly presents itself as altruism, not a desire to sell papers, the US military and right-wing press outline the risk to soldiers while glossing over the greater number of indigenous casualties, and Assange does himself no favours by first becoming the movement’s lightning-conductor figurehead, then its nemesis.
But the facts at the core stand and the story grows; credit companies cut off support for WikiLeaks, presumably under government pressure, but the rallying call is heard by pressure group Anonymous, and the leaked information proves impossible to suppress. The battle switches tactics; by setting himself up as the identifiable face of change, Assange becomes vulnerable to taint – watch how many times US TV presenters drag out the phrase ‘blood on his hands’ in order to shift attention from the war before gaining confidence and suggesting that Assange should be taken out by a hit-man.
There are, of course, no easy answers; in the post 9/11 world of data-gathering, Assange is nobody’s idea of a hero, and famously fell out with the filmmaker. But equally there are no valid opinions without the facts, and Gibney’s film certainly supplies those, so that it’s hard not to take a side. I live beneath the ever-present chug of helicopter blades (there’s one outside my window as I write this) and my kitchen backs onto the offices of The Guardian, where most of the meetings in this film take place. In the light of recent NSA revelations it’s impossible not to question how much deeper the 1984 state that’s all around me runs.
While it’s clear that spying and torture leaks have damaged US standing in the world, this was a battle that had to occur at some point. Once the information superhighway grew so big that it became subject to manipulation, it was only a matter of time before whistleblowers appeared, and Assange and Manning provided the elements for a perfect storm.
Knowledge that Barack Obama handed over detainees to governments sanctioning torture and murder against the Geneva Convention means there can be no return to innocence. How those who are determined to bring about total information freedom may yet affect the fundamental tenets of war and the foundations of capitalism remains to be seen. In Assange’s case, the phenomenon of Noble Cause Corruption set in, and perhaps the moral destruction of WikiLeaks was also inevitable. Manning, kept in solitary confinement and subjected to psychological torture for a year, is the one who took all the risk and suffered the most pain. But this is a story that feels far from over.
It’s interesting that when you search IMDbPro for reviews, there are virtually none from the US. And then one remembers that the US chose not to take issue with Assange, because both US and UK newspapers would also have to face prosecution. And there, the conspiracy-nut in me emerges…