Are your weekend entertainment plans certified? CCNMA is a weekly feature that explores the movie industry’s love-hate relationship with computing technology. This week’s movie is NEW ON DVD .
Once in a while in America a documentary filmmaker catches lightning in a bottle and spreads his gospel to millions while selling tickets hand over fist. For every March of the Penguins or Fahrenheit 9/11 that stumbles into the rare and precious alchemy of turning quasi-reality into gold, however, there are literally hundreds of films that almost nobody ever reads or hears about, much less watches. So even people who generally pay attention to the world of film could be forgiven for not having known about, much less sat down to watch, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks. It came, a few people saw, nothing was conquered.
Some might argue that WikiLeaks itself is in danger of suffering a similar fate. Despite founder Julian Assange’s having become a full-time resident of the Ecuadorian embassy in London, the site has continued to publish leaks and otherwise pursue its mission. In the couple of years since WikiLeaks’ charismatic mouthpiece lost a hefty chunk of his bully pulpit to the isolation of political asylum, however, it’s been all quiet on the global media front for what was formerly a seething hotbed of anti-establishment agitation. WikiLeaks was expressly created to enable and harbor the likes of erstwhile NSA contractor Edward Snowden … yet Snowden went directly to the press.
Whether you believe that WikiLeaks is down for the count, or merely out to lunch — and due to make a grand re-entrance onto the stage of world affairs — We Steal Secrets gives a provocative and engaging account of the rise of hacktivism in general and Assange in particular. Both WikiLeaks and the CIA profess to believe that knowing the truth shall make you, me and everyone else free, but the guys pursuing that cause without a federal mandate (or federal funding) are less picky about whose privilege it is to reap the fruits, or the whirlwind, of their labors.
Filmmaker Alex Gibney begins his story with the 1989 launch of the shuttle Atlantis, which piggybacked the plutonium-powered and unmanned Galileo orbital observatory into space on the first leg of its mission to Jupiter. The launch was complicated by the appearance of WANK, a playfully anarchic computer worm, on a network shared by NASA and the Department of Energy. WANK was eventually traced to the Australian city of Melbourne, and attributed to the chaotic genius of a handful of hackers including then-teenaged “Mendax,” aka Julian Assange.
From that auspicious beginning, Assange, er, went on to launch WikiLeaks in 2006. Not directly went on to it, of course, but the film has fairly little to say about the 17-year gap between WANK and WikiLeaks, beyond that Assange’s ongoing interest in hacking led to run-ins with Australian authorities. The clash eventually resulted in a plea agreement that returned a sentence of three years’ probation in exchange for Assange’s admission of guilt regarding 24 hacking offenses. So that happened.
After launching WikiLeaks, Assange gained increasing notoriety for a series of disclosures exposing various corruptions in finance, energy production and politics, before landing a really big fish when Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning began feeding him massive quantities of sensitive U.S. government documents. WikiLeaks’ subsequent publication of a gunsight video (infamously dubbed “Collateral Murder”) from an American helicopter gunship engaged in a series of air-to-ground attacks in Iraq blew the lid off a side of the Iraq War that many had neither suspected nor seen. And that’s when WikiLeaks really got off to the races.
We Steal Secrets devotes much of its running time to reporting on Assange (who did not speak to filmmakers, and makes his own case only in snippets from prior interviews) and his activities, but also devotes a huge swath of its coverage to Manning (also not directly interviewed), whose presence in the film is deepened by revealing excerpts from chat logs. Manning, who publicly reiterated his long-held desire to become a woman at his court martial trial in 2013, was only arrested after confiding to Adrian Lamo, a noted American hacker who first agreed to keep Manning’s confidences, then flip-flopped and gave him up. Sometimes the truth shall make you free, and sometimes, well, be careful who you go internet chatting with.
Gibney sifts through an impressive array of talking heads: Retired former NSA and CIA director Gen. Michael Hayden gives a candid and collegial assessment of evolving U.S. intelligence policies. (It’s one of Hayden’s observations about common and accepted government security practices — “We steal secrets” — that provides the film’s title.) British journalist and Assange associate Nick Davies is both admiring and critical of Assange. Lamo, who’s been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, gives a contradictory accounting of himself.
(Not least among the film’s interviewees are the two women who accused Assange of sexually assaulting them, tipping the first in a line of legal and jurisdictional dominoes that landed him where he now sits.)
Gavin MacFadyen, director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism, gets off the best line in the film when asked to characterize the scope of WikiLeaks: Is it comparable to Apple? Perhaps to IBM? “It’s a corner gas station,” MacFadyen says, “with some extremely bright attendants. It was true that [Assange] tried to create an impression that it was a very large organization. It was Julian Assange, his $300 laptop, 10 sim cards and a very cheap jacket that he’d put on if he had to do an interview.”
We Steal Secrets doesn’t get to finish its story — as Bob Dylan once put it, the wheel’s still in spin — but the information that it does offer is compelling and powerful. Assange attacked the film without having seen it, but he needn’t have worried that its depiction might not entirely square with his messianic self-image. The public imagination is fickle and, notwithstanding occasional and notable exceptions, one of the surest means of failing to capture it is to use a documentary as the bottle for your message.
INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY GIVETH, TAKETH AWAY: We Steal Secrets discloses that, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, U.S. intelligence agencies intercepted phone calls and e-mails at a rate of 60,000 per second. Big Brother is clearly watching, though the increased covert intelligence gathering is often to the detriment of those in power. Keeping more secrets means you have more secrets for others to steal. Or as the situation is described by journalist James Bell late in the film, “Governments are more powerful and more vulnerable than they’ve ever been at the same time.”
PAY PER PLAY: When he attempted to negotiate an interview with Assange, Gibney eventually ended up with a choice. He could either pay a fee of $1 million, or agree to a trade: Assange would grant an interview in exchange for confidential information from Gibney about his other interviewees. Did you catch that Assange was not interviewed for Gibney’s movie?
HE CHOSE … POORLY: There’s a glimmer of unintentional comedy in the film provided by the screen name picked by Manning for his chat dealings with Lamo: “bradass87.” In the internet age, we all must frequently assign ourselves various online identities. Let bradass87 be a lesson, folks. Choose that next internet handle with care. You never know where its association with your name and character will show up next.