movie film review | chris tookey

We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks

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  We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks Review
Tookey's Rating
9 /10
Average Rating
7.69 /10

Directed by: Alex Gibney
Written by:

Released: 2013
Origin: US
Colour: C
Length: 130

Timely and excellent.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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With films such as The Act of Killing, West of Memphis and Searching For Sugar Man, we are enjoying a golden age for documentaries. This latest one is a cautionary tale about the power, potential and dangers of the internet. It has worthwhile warnings about ethical journalism. And it’s as exciting as any espionage thriller.

Writer-director Alex Gibney makes topical, intelligent documentaries. They may not be stylistically innovative, but they’re always meticulously researched and characterised by a healthy distrust of misused power. Taxi to the Dark Side, his account of American torture at the Iraqi prison Abu Ghraib, won an Oscar. Another award-winner was his hatchet-job on Enron, the failed multi-national corporation, ironically called Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.

His not altogether complimentary history of the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks is just as serious and even more illuminating. He’s hampered by not having access to two of the central characters, soldier Bradley Manning (who sourced all the documents for which WikiLeaks is famous) and the man who personifies WikiLeaks, Julian Assange (pictured), but by interviewing those who have known them he builds up a complex and convincing character study of both men, and their historical significance.

It starts off as a David-versus-Goliath story, with footage being leaked of the reckless shooting by an American helicopter gunship of twelve innocent people, including two Reuters journalists. This was a classic case of an “official secret” being merely an event that the US military was keen to hush up. There’s no doubt here who the good guys are: the ones transmitting information and bringing the guilty to account.

However, Bradley Manning’s motives for releasing thousands of secret documents about the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq appear to have been motivated as much by his feelings of being a sexual outsider, as by his determination to reveal the truth. He is obviously a tortured soul, and you end up wondering why he had access to secrets in the first place, and whom he may have harmed or endangered.

Julian Assange’s reasons for disseminating those secrets are even murkier. The borderline between attractive recklessness and criminal irresponsibility is uncertain, but Assange seems to have no scruples about straddling both sides of the divide.

He has been, at best, uncaring about anyone who might be killed as a result of his revelations, and reluctant to accept any responsibility. As far as he is concerned, governments are wrong to conceal all secrets, and he is right to disclose as many as he finds.

This is in marked contrast to Nick Davies, the senior Guardian journalist who acts as the moral centre of the film. He has a much more nuanced and grown-up approach to journalistic responsibility, and reveals certain aspects of Assange’s methods that the latter might himself prefer to keep covered up.

Gibney also interviews one of the two young women who have accused Assange of sexual assault and discovers that she is no CIA stooge, but someone who was genuinely disturbed by his apparent determination to father a child by her against her wishes. Mr Assange has at least four children by different women, around the world. This suggests a personal fecklessness that’s only too compatible with his professional recklessness.

Over the course of a riveting two hours, Gibney builds up a disturbing portrayal not only of Assange, but of the amoral internet that he symbolizes. Behind the anonymity of cyberspace, people can avoid responsibility for their actions, spread lies or half-truths, and bully with impunity those with whom they disagree. At times, there are disturbing echoes of the old-fashioned lynch-mob.

Meanwhile, for governments, the internet has become a spying machine, with implications for our privacy that are as yet unrevealed.

The quotation “We steal secrets” occurs in the documentary, but comes from an unexpected source. It’s an unguarded admission by Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA, that America is in the business of stealing information from other countries, including its own allies - and so is every other country. Much of this is via the internet.

This is a film that starts out simply exposing governmental and corporate injustice but ends up as a much more complicated story of corruption. It’s corruption by celebrity, corruption by irresponsibility, corruption by egotism. Most of all, it’s corruption by exposure to a powerful but amoral technology.

The appeal of WikiLeaks is that it seems barely to exist and therefore can’t be held to account. But that’s also its gravest flaw. It’s irresponsible, and proud of it.

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