Sunday, June 2, 2013

"We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks"

 4 / 5 

"The truth has consquences," reads the tagline for the surprisingly compelling documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, whose title is a sly play on reality: the secret-stealing organization it refers to isn't the beleaguered website, rather the U.S. government.  That fact has been overlooked by Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who condemned the film without seeing it and by doing so proved the movie's point: There is no such thing as the simple truth.

Former CIA director Michael Hayden makes the "We steal secrets" declaration in the movie, and its appearance in the title showcases the complicated ways in which truth has a way of hiding in plain sight.

Beginning with a cursory but helpful history of Wikileaks and its record of success in securing sensitive documents from anonymous informants, We Steal Secrets quickly focuses on two key moments in recent Wikileaks history: the release of disturbing "Collateral Murder" video footage from a U.S. Apache helicopter, and the release of hundreds of thousands of diplomatic messages, or cables, that shed light on U.S. government actions during the Middle East wars.

Many of the Wikileaks documents were provided by U.S. Army Pfc Bradley Manning, and his motivations, along with the complicated motivations of Assange, form the emotional backbone of We Steal Secrets.  They are the real interests of Oscar-winning director, Alex Gibney.

There are bigger questions here, and the movie doesn't avoid them altogether, including the extent to which the leaked documents compromised government activities and individual safety, and whether Assange is an actual journalist or simply a rabble-rouser.  The ethical question that really seems to concern Gibney is why anyone would do what either of these men -- much less our entire society -- did.

Were Assange and Manning cut from the same cloth, isolated loners desperately seeking attention?  There's little doubt that's what both of them wanted; they have said as much, Assange through his earlier (alleged) hacking activities and his insistence that the public "demands" Wikileaks have a face; Manning through the desperate, heartbreaking revelations he communicates to an unknown accomplice through instant messages.  They both believe that the public has a right to know the unvarnished truth about government activities.

It's chilling to watch Assange argue that it doesn't matter if Wikileaks compromises the safety of one person or hundreds, and equally provoking to see the way Manning almost gloats about the ease of securing the confidential material.

The seemingly cursory ways in which both of them discuss and then dismiss ethical questions is a revelation, one that the technology in use gives even deeper resonance: We live in a time when we do things simply because we can, not questioning the long-term consequence.

Lots of time in the movie is given over to the allegations that Assange raped two women in Sweden, and while it may at first seem both puzzling and telling that a relatively even-handed documentary, it becomes a demonstration of the film's balance that the salacious personal details of Manning are matched by those of Assange -- that he falls victim to the very notions of objective truth he claims to uphold.   For the first 40 minutes or so, it's hard not to be on Assange's side and admire him; as the film continues, he becomes a less and less trustworthy character, and his refusal to participate in it is noteworthy: Assange seems to have been more focused on becoming a public figure than serving the public interest.

For in the end, what interest has been served by Wikileaks?  Has it been a great liberator of the truth, or has it turned into the very Orwellian mechanism of fear and oppression that it was created to prevent?  The movie has no dearth of disillusioned voices, and as Assange becomes stranger and less stable, it's he who makes us doubt everything he's done before, not the malicious intent of a filmmaker.

We Sell Secrets suffers a bit from a lack of focus; it's never quite clear where Gibney's own sympathies lie, and some historical discussion of the importance of leaked information in affecting change would have been helpful -- though further boosted the film's already slightly bloated length.  (The Pentagon Papers are mentioned in news headlines, but their influence is never discussed.)

What really makes We Sell Secrets special, though, is the emotional weight it finds in the stories of two people desperate to leave a mark in the world.  At first curiously, then resonantly, Gibney chooses to end the movie by quoting Carl Sagan's "Pale Blue Dot" essay -- a rumination on how little any of our activity on Earth could possibly matter ... and how much it does.

The arguments about Wikileaks as a force for good or a terrorist organization are the wrong ones. The real discussions should be about why technology has made us more disconnected from each other, less willing to trust than ever before, always ready to doubt, to fight and to tear down the work of others.

Viewed June 2, 2013 -- Sundance Sunset 5


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