When I saw Alex Gibney’s new documentary “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks” at Sundance, I was bowled over. My instant reaction was mostly admiration for Gibney, who has become “a beast at his craft,” as my first blush Tweet noted. The film, opening in limited release this weekend, is a towering study of one of the most enigmatic figures of our time, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and it will surely be seen as the definitive documentary of the organization, which trades in leaked classified information that has had an impact on everything from the Arab Spring to perceptions of National Security here at home.
That the film will be held in such a light is clearly rubbing the organization, and Assange, the wrong way. The film does a number of things that would chafe for the white-haired renegade, but one of them in particular seems like fair play to me: it makes sure the line between Assange’s sexual offense allegations in Sweden and his woes with the US government regarding the business of WikiLeaks is not blurred, and it makes the case that Assange has continued to conflate the separate issues in an attempt to stoke the fire under his supporters and push the WikiLeaks cause.
It also paints a fascinating and frankly compassionate portrait of Assange’s superstar source Bradley Manning, the US Army soldier arrested and charged with 22 offenses including “aiding the enemy” as a result of his communications with, and leaks to, Assange. Manning pleaded guilty to 10 of the charges in February and will stand trial for the remaining 12 beginning on June 3, or nine days hence.
One imagines Assange would have liked a little more of that compassion in the documentary for himself, though it is noted that he declined an interview with Gibney. And on that point, it is one of countless elements challenged by WikiLeaks in a recently released series of talking points and a full annotated transcript of the film.
“Julian Assange did not say the market rate for an interview with him was $1 million dollars and Alex Gibney did not decline,” the material reads. “This section deliberately distorts the final, lengthy negotiation between Julian Assange and Alex Gibney regarding his and WikiLeaks’ possible participation in the documentary, which at the time was unnamed…Alex Gibney distorts this conversation by attempting to portray Julian Assange as greedy.”
– WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) May 25, 2013
Much of the information is sourced, though plenty of it also comes at the price of “take our word for it.” Whatever the case, the film has clearly riled the organization to the point that such an undertaking was seen as necessary.
Gibney has responded to the organization’s outcry, noting that WikiLeaks is reacting to a non-finished version of the film. The transcript “did not included any of Bradley Manning’s words…almost 1/4 of the film,” the filmmaker Tweeted, alleging that Assange “wrote [Manning] out of the story…the ‘leak’ [of the transcript] is a malicious edit or the result of a bootleg audio recording.”
One can only imagine what the reaction will be to Bill Condon’s “The Fifth Estate,” a narrative film about Assange’s rise starring Benedict Cumberbatch that is sure to take liberties (as nearly all biopics do). That film is due out in October.
@wikileaks Whoops. WikiLeaks has published transcript of non-final version of film. Final includes “grand jury.” More errors from WikiLeaks.
– Alex Gibney (@BaLueBolivar) May 24, 2013
Meanwhile, WikiLeaks acolytes are lying in wait, ready to snuff out any sense that “We Steal Secrets” (the very title is also challenged on the basis of semantics) does anything more than distort the truth. There were reports of a lively Q&A session for the film just last week at the Seattle Film Festival where Gibney was harassed by an audience member accusing him of falsifying information for the film. And a point of contention was, again, the issue of Assange’s conflation of his woes. “Gibney [is] explaining that after much investigation, Assange’s charges totally disconnected from Wikileaks,” one person in attendance reported. “Getting super tense in here.”
I’ll leave the task of parsing all of this information and running a comb through it to readers and interested parties far sharper and more versed in it all (and, well, smarter) than me. My reaction to the film remains what it is, however: It’s a tightly constructed and revealing piece of work that pushes past its subjects and finds profound bedrock concerning outcasts and secrecy. And if those two words immediately conjure the ominous, they shouldn’t. There are times when the film serves more as profile than exposé, and it’s in those moments that it really soars.
Head out to the theater this weekend if it’s playing near you and see for yourself.
UPDATE (6/11): It looks like someone has taken the liberty to disassemble the annotated transcript with annotations of the annotations.
This post has been updated to reflect Gibney’s rebuttals.