Jun 8, 2013

We Steal Secrets

I always had a feeling that Julian Assange was a creep, regardless of the one good idea he had with Wikileaks. And this was even before the rape allegations against him surfaced.
It's a spectacular and explosive idea to offer whistleblowers a safe place to anonymously expose the truth about governments and corporations, but there was something about Wikileaks that seemed not entirely thought through. Who decides what is shareable material? Is everything considered worth leaking? Is someone capable at the helm of the vetting process? And I am not talking about alleged classified information. Apparently, nowadays in this country everything is classified, including the Verizon phone calls you make to your aunt Mabel. I'm talking about a coherent criteria that is not just about some hacker's reckless obsession with sticking it to The Man. Obviously, there was much good and revolutionary about Wikileaks, but the power it could wield and the chaos and governmental paranoia it could unleash seem to have been a careless afterthought for Assange. Which he paid for dearly.
Gibney pieces his story together by fashioning a fascinating dramatic arc for Assange. He carefully lays out revelations that follow Assange's sudden rise from internet revolutionary and game changer, to paranoid loner who wants to spill the beans about everyone but himself. This movie is not sympathetic to him. Most of the people Gibney interviews are disgruntled former colleagues. He makes a case that Assange, far from being a political thinker or a revolutionary, was primarily a hacker, who operated with that sense of anonymous, self-righteous impunity. Much is paradoxical about a site that relies on anonymity commanded by a guy who loved the spotlight until it came back to bite him. It is a fascinating story about an unsavory character with one brilliant, dangerous idea. Gibney adds dramatic complexity by connecting it with the tragic fall of Bradley Manning.
The film is more sympathetic to Manning, a frail, sexually confused young man who had the very bad idea to join the Army, while the Army had the very bad idea of deploying him to war even after several recommendations against it from his superiors.  Gibney delves deeply into the intimate personal lives of Assange and Manning. He devotes considerable time, for instance, to Manning's transsexual yearnings, and his private messages to the guy who eventually ratted him out, Adrian Lamo, another creep. One wonders, is this relevant? Gibney also interviews one of the women who accused Assange of rape on a suspicious timing that seemed to coincide with Assange's persecution after Manning's leaks were published by his site. You are left to figure out for yourself what these accusations and their timing mean, although they don't make Assange, a man who apparently tends to tear condoms on purpose while he is having sex, look good. Ironically, it feels like Gibney is overly prying into intimate details, but the personal approach adds rich and fascinating layers to the motivations of these two hounded men.  Don't expect, however, a fair and balanced documentary. It has a strong point of view (Gibney is his own narrator) and leaves you to draw your own conclusions, a meandering, overly long but riveting primer on this chapter of our current history.

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