w e s t e a l s e c r e t s : t h e s t o r y o f w i k i l e a k s
12th July 2013
15th July 2013
I make no secret of the fact that Broken Shark is a huge fan of Alex Gibney’s work. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Mea Maxima Culpa are both amongst the finest documentaries we’ve seen in recent years. Gibney excels at making complicated issues accessible and he does it with no loss of fidelity. Having also witnessed him host a Q&A in person, he comes across as every bit as intelligent as his work suggests. So it’s safe to say I was definitely looking forward to his dissection of the Wikileaks phenomenon. He did not disappoint.
We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks attempts to tell the entire tale of Assange’s pioneeringly reckless online collaboration tool. It starts with the young hacker Assange and suggests a link between him and a very early ‘worm’ in the NASA computer system and takes us through the early Wikileaks releases, on through Bradley Manning’s mass download and into the present with Assange hiding behind a curtain in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
The only shame with the documentary is its (to be honest, expected) inability to talk to Assange directly about the rise of his global brand. We glimpse him in numerous archive footage clips along the way so he is not really absent but it would have been a great bonus to the film if Gibney could have talked him out of his apparent $1 million fee for an interview. As it is, Assange has done himself no favours by hiding away from the inevitable direct questioning that would have been leveled at him. Indeed we witness his reaction to some pretty inoffensive questioning from an unfortunate reporter. He doesn’t come out of it well.
The movie is in part executive produced by Assange supporter Jemima Kahn so it’s credit to Gibney that it comes across as a very balanced look at the Wikileaks machine. It becomes very apparent that Assange is insistent on his and Wikileaks’ brands being one and the same and it’s not unreasonable to suggest that this is one of the reasons that the latter has effectively being brought down by its creator.
The first part of the documentary concentrates on the building of Wikileaks and its breakthrough move of publishing secret documents from one of the main Icelandic banks, proving that they were dangerously and indeed fraudulently exposed financially. Working out of a small rented house in Reykjavik, Assange and his fledgling team showed the Icelandic people that they had been knowingly lied to. It was a watershed moment in freedom of information and at that stage, one that is very difficult for anyone outside a vested interest to argue with. The next stages of Wikileaks’ development is probably more well known as Assange and his colleagues teamed up with various newspapers to leak thousands and thousands of classified (and some not classified) US military documents.
The ‘not classified’ part is where the film scores highly on telling you things you probably didn’t know - the original helicopter gunship footage that put Wikileaks on the map was not classified. And it’s in this level of detail that Gibney is really shown to be a master of his craft. He has assembled a superb roster of players from all sides of the Wikileaks story (except obviously the main culprit / hero depending on your viewpoint) and it is enlightening listening to them talk about their initial enthusiasm and ideals and seeing how over time and through various issues these things have changed.
Until a good distance over halfway in the film you will be convinced that Assange is purely the injured party and you will be astounded that he could have found himself in the position he is in. Then you hear from one of his alleged victims in Sweden and you see the intentional merging of Assange and Wikileaks and more and more you will realise that something that could have been an amazing force for good has been dragged back to one man’s problems.
Which gets to the absolute point of the issue here. Wikilleaks was essentially one person and for one person to be given the power to publish or not publish leaked State secrets is a highly questionable situation. Assange did this from a position of apparent invulnerability, he was almost the Napster of secret documents. His site hosted the secret documents but it did not actually steal them. So when the culprit was ultimately found, it was Bradley Manning who ended up in solitary confinement. And yet, the witch hunt launched by the US after the release of the classified documents chose to vilify Assange and completely ignore the mainstream press who collaborated with him.
This is Assange’s failure. By hiding from his issues in Sweden and deliberately becoming Wikileaks himself, he is in grave danger of destroying his ideals. Few people will believe his claims of a conspiracy between Sweden and the US to extradite him, no charges have ever been issued for him in the US. So he has ended up isolated in an embassy and the future of Wikileaks is less than certain.
We Steal Secrets is a fascinating and detailed look into a true one off (both company and individual). No stone is left unturned and the wonderfully balanced view presented will leave you arguing with yourself as you try to work out who is in the right and how much is being withheld from you as a state secret and how much you would want known by everybody. The personal cost to many of the individuals is brought out into very stark focus and probably for the first time you will see the wide range of victims that circle this story. At the same time, you will no doubt be left furious by the ease at which the Obama administration managed to shift focus from the actual blood being shed and the potential blood that might be shed by exposing these secrets. We Steal Secrets is engaging, enraging, unflinching, accessible, detailed and enlightening.
Check out the trailer for We Steal Secrets here.