“I came into this story looking for a hero.” Then Gibney pauses and gives the slightest of shrugs. “But, inevitably, things change.”
WikiLeaks and Julian Assange have made no secret of just how pissed off they are about this documentary – they’re so pissed off, they’ve gone so far as to issue a line-by-line rebuttal of the entire script (wikileaks.org). Assange himself has slammed it as “anti-WikiLeaks” and the organisation is accusing Gibney of “errors and sleight of hand”.
It’s fair to say the film isn’t overly kind to Assange. It accuses him of muddying WikiLeaks’ cause – fighting for total ‘truth’ and transparency – by refusing to face up to the sexual assault charges brought against him by two women in Sweden (though it does not conclude that he is either guilty or not guilty of the alleged crimes).
The face of WikiLeaks: Aussie Assange is criticised in the doc
Crucially, the film suggests he was wrong to make the charges a part of the WikiLeaks story, considering the inference from Assange is that these assault claims were invented in order to extradite him to Sweden, so he can in turn be extradited to the US and charged with espionage for leaking diplomatic cables.
“There is a lie at the heart of what Julian did,” Gibney tells TNT as we settle into a sofa at the Soho Hotel. “The original sin of WikiLeaks, the moment in the garden, is when he makes this Swedish matter a part of WikiLeaks.” The film even raises the question of whether funds donated to WikiLeaks have gone to the transparency cause or the Australian’s defence case. Yup, Assange was never going to love that.
However, if you wanted to try and understand this century’s most vital and complex political scandal, you’d need a man like Gibney at the helm. Esquire magazine called him “the most important documentarian of our time” and he’s got ample grounding in the subject matter, having already delved into high-profile sex scandal with 2010’s Oscar-nominated Client 9: The Rise And Fall Of Eliot Spitzer, and war crimes in Academy Award winner Taxi To The Dark Side, about an innocent Afghani tortured and killed at an American airbase.
Gibney’s new film is undoubtedly compelling, skillfully explaining how the WikiLeaks saga unfolded – from the process of releasing classified US government information over the internet, to Assange holing up in London’s Ecuadorian embassy, where he’s been since June 2012, to avoid arrest – and exploring precisely why it had such dire consequences.
And bearing in mind all the press coverage lavished upon WikiLeaks and Assange, it’s refreshing to see some focus on Bradley Manning, the troubled individual who actually leaked the information – Assange was more the publisher – and now faces life imprisonment for ‘espionage’ and ‘aiding the enemy’.
But where Gibney has really gone to war with WikiLeaks’ silver-haired chieftan is over the transparency of his personal life. Perhaps even more important than the political in We Steal Secrets is the personal, with the motivations of central characters Manning and Assange preoccupying the director’s final cut.
Throughout the film, Gibney makes no secret of the fact his sympathy lies with Manning, who is portrayed as a confused, cross-dressing loner, mercilessly bullied in the army and so tormented by his decision to provide classified material to WikiLeaks, he confesses all and seals his own fate.
The director admits Assange is cast in the opposing role. “This is a film about an anti-hero,” he tells us. “[Assange is] someone who becomes the very thing he despises. [WikiLeaks] gets compromised by a guy who, ironically, is good at holding others to account, but he can’t be held to account himself.”
Assange starts the film in Melbourne as a ponytailed teenage hacker with noble ideals and ends it as an ego that has grown bigger than his cause. But from the very beginning, We Steal Secrets hints at what it concludes is his fatal flaw – it’s in the bravado of his admission early on that he “likes defending victims and crushing bastards”; the early arrogance as, following a pre-Manning leak, he travels to Iceland in order to challenge a claim that he’ll be arrested if he does so.
Troubled: the film includes footage of Bradley Manning (second from right) who is now on trial for leaks
Gibney tells TNT unequivocally that he believes “it became more important for Julian to be the centre of the [WikiLeaks] story”. He also responds to our question about Assange running for the Australian Senate with the unambiguous assertion that he’d “hate to see Julian Assange with power”.
We might conclude, then, that the director completed this film with a fully-formed opinion of his leading man in mind, which runs into difficulties when you consider Gibney didn’t actually interview Assange for the doc. Not that he didn’t try to secure a face-to-face. But, the filmmaker claims, after being offered only short interviews or “sound bites”, he decided the film would be no worse off without Assange.
“[It would be] like talking to a politician,” he decides. “It’s ultimately not that satisfying because you’re getting sloganeering. You’re not getting a human being anymore.”
Throughout our interview, Gibney is the consummate professional, engaged and offering insight despite this being one in a long day of press meetings. But put the “errors and sleight of hand” quote to him and he gets visibly ruffled.
Politely annoyed, of the annotated transcript he insists: “The annotations are mostly wrong. There’s nothing that caused me to think I made any factual errors in the film. The campaign against the film [hasn’t been] a debate, it was more of a disinformation campaign closer to something the CIA would [put together].
The film does criticise Julian Assange for some of his actions … but it’s never anti-WikiLeaks. From beginning to end, it’s pretty clear about its admiration for the initial ideals of WikiLeaks. [But] the film does have a point of view – it’s my point of view.”
Inevitably, it’s impossible to draw any easy conclusions from Gibney’s movie – in investigating a tangled web, it has also managed to spin one of its own. But that’s what’s so fascinating about this story – even suspended in limbo in a stuffy room in the Ecuadorian embassy, it’s got legs.
We Steal Secrets: The Story Of WikiLeaks is out through Universal on July 12
Photos: Universal Pictiures International 2013; 2013 Focus Features LLC