[Note: This is my first weekly column after three years of daily blogging.]
Alex Gibney’s much-anticipated film, We Steal Secrets: the Story of WikiLeaks, will not hit theaters until the end of May and already it’s a media sensation. Of course, WikiLeaks really was always about the media (for example, I live-blogged revelations and responses for nearly 200 consecutive days here). Gibney summed up the reaction for me earlier this week: “My view, while biased, is: The response from people who’ve seen the film has been mainly positive and from those who haven’t, mainly negative.”
In the latter camp are Julian Assange, WikiLeaks founder, and several key allies, such as writer/filmmaker John Pilger. They claim they’ve seen a (what else?) “leaked” script but Gibney has some doubts about that. Even if they do have it, Gibney points out, they should know that words on a transcript are not a film, which you have to “see” and experience. And he adds: “I don’t consider myself a very good talker or writer but a pretty good filmmaker. So even if you saw a transcript—the point of a film is that people can see it. It’s how the story is presented. Pilger should know that since he’s a filmmaker."
Coverage in the US, after the February screening at Sundance, has been mostly good, he points out. “The people who don’t necessarily have an axe to grind are liking it,” he asserts. And he again declares strong support for Bradley Manning.
Before going further, check out the official trailer:
When WikiLeaks became a household name three years ago—the release of the “Collateral Murder” video from Iraq came on April 5, 2010—and the material it released caused shock waves around the world, numerous film operatives rushed to buy rights to books and articles. One of them was Zero Dark Thirty screenwriter Mark Boal.
Early this year Assange denounced a Hollywood flick when it started shooting—it focuses on the early days of WikiLeaks and his relationship with Daniel Domscheit-Berg (who left the group in a huff). And he blasted Gibney’s upcoming doc—which he refused to cooperate with—right down to its title.
At Sundance, Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman interviewed Gibney (who won an Oscar for his Taxi to Dark Side and has directed many other fine docs, from Enron to Mea Maxima Culpa). She also solicited a critical response from Assange attorney Jennifer Robinson. Much of the debate was over how the film treats the Swedish legal case and the seriousness of the threat that Assange could end up extradited to the United States. Gibney told The Daily Beast, “I think a lot of this film is deeply sympathetic to Julian and his initial cause. I just think Julian got corrupted.”
But the debate continued. At the New Statesman in early February, Jemima Khan, who had posted bail money for Assange, and went on to become a producer of the Gibney film, wrote a piece claiming that Assange's backers had become “blinkered” to his faults, especially the alleged sexual misconduct.
This led Pilger, a week later, to attack her, and Gibney, at The Guardian, accusing the Assange “haters” of suffering from “arrested devleopment.” As for Assange not cooperating with the Gibney film: He “knew that a film featuring axe grinders and turncoats would be neither ‘nuanced’ nor ‘represent the truth,’ as Khan wrote, and that its very title was a gift to the fabricators of a bogus criminal indictment that could doom him to one of America's hellholes.”
Gibney then responded at the New Statesman, opening with: “How sad. John Pilger, who once had a claim to the role of truth-teller, has become a prisoner of his own unquestioning beliefs.” He said that Pilger had even gotten the title of his film wrong. “In fact, ‘we steal secrets’ is a quote taken from the film, uttered by the former CIA director Michael Hayden,” Gibney revealed. “Thus, the title of the film is intended to be, er ... ironic.”
There are many people, including me, who admire the original mission of WikiLeaks. But those supporters should not have to stand silently by as WikiLeaks’s original truth-seeking principles are undermined by a man who doesn’t want to be held to account for accusations about his personal behaviour. To paraphrase Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Julian Assange is not the Messiah; and he may be a very naughty boy.
Wanting to catch up with his current views on the pre-release controversy, I interviewed Gibney this week. Count me as another who, for now, has not seen the film. Some highlights:
ON THE PILGER DEBATE: “Pilger’s attack was unfair and unvarnished and not buttressed by the facts, especially since he didn’t see film. Like Assange, he may have a transcript or just saying he has. I doubt it."
THE TITLE OF THE FILM: “It was meant to be provocative. People in Assange’s camp want to take it a certain way. If one sees the film one sees what I’m getting at. We live in a world where everyone thinks they do the right thing, so they are entitled to do the wrong thing. So ends can justify the means. The title is meant to set a context for both leaking and the rather brutal attack on leakers by the Obama administration. They’re trying to try people like Bradley Manning for a capital offense for leaking classified material."
ON THE MEDIA SHOWING MORE SYMPATHY FOR MANNING LATELY: "The larger story is not a change in views about him but how much he’d been ignored. When you see the film you’ll see—and the thing I’m most gratified about—how much we put him at the center of story. Where he should have been but hasn’t been. Part of it was he was just the 'alleged' leaker and now he has pleaded guilty. Finally he’s being noticed, which is a good thing.
"My personal view—he’s the new Pvt. Eddie Slovik [the American soldier our military executed for desertion during World War II.] They picked on Manning because they could. They felt he was weak, he was marginalized. And I think now it’s beginning to surprise the government that public opinion is shifting in his direction [since his statement at his recent hearing]."
ON MEDIA ACCOUNTS ATTRIBUTING MANNING'S LEAKING TO GENDER CONFUSION: "In my film I recognize that Bradley Manning had personal troubles. He made a difference, and I think he thought about trying to make a difference—but he was also different himself.
"The idea of Manning leaking because he wanted to become a woman is a joke. Not at all credible. But I think a reason he turned to [Adrian] Lamo in those chats was he needed someone to talk to.
"I took some criticism at Sundace for saying Manning was 'alienated.' I think it was twisted into me saying he leaked because he was a malcontent. But if he was perfectly in alignment with the military culture he would have never leaked! Sometimes whistleblowers get distanced from the culture and feel they should or must speak out. These issues are important to the story."
WHAT SURPRISED HIM IN MAKING THE FILM? "The Swedish sex charges surprised me. I assumed from the start, especially after doing Client 9 [his film on Eliot Spitzer], that as Michael Moore says in my new film—it was a put-up job, something so suspicious about it, it seemed like a plot. I don’t believe that now....
"Another surprise: I started out thinking it was a story about a machine, a leaking machine—but WikiLeaks’ contribution was not the 'drop box' but an ability to publish on many international sites. The jury is still out on the best way to get secrets from a source—and the best way is probably not a drop box."