Briefly, Julian Assange seemed to rule the world. He was a freedom fighter for the digital age, the spark for a new era of transparency and accountability. Now a white-washed, government-bugged patch of Ecuador in Knightsbridge is his self-made prison, his rape-trial still pending, his empire squandered, the news no longer interested.
Things weren’t looking good for Assange, and then Alex Gibney – one of the smartest, toughest, most fearsome documentarians in modern cinema – turns up to make We Steal Secrets, a humane, assiduous, superbly constructed tribute to the bravery of Bradley Manning, and an exposé of the “noble cause corruption” of the man behind WikiLeaks.
GFW: You don’t manage to interview Bradley Manning or Julian Assange in We Steal Secrets. If you had the chance to do so, what would you ask them?
Alex Gibney: I didn’t want to sit down with Julian Assange for five minutes. He actually offered to do that at one point and then rescinded it. I didn’t want a soundbite from him, I wanted him to take me through the story step-by-step. That would have been really interesting.
If I had the chance to talk to Bradley Manning, I would have focused on the moments that led him to decide to leak. But the online chats Manning had with [“grey-hat” hacker] Adrian Lamo are a pretty good indication of where his head was at. He was very open in those conversations. There’s a great quote from Andre Gide: “Art is born of constraint and dies of freedom.” Well, the constraint that helped us on this film was not being able to talk to Manning, because we had to show how he got to where he is now through his online communications – which is, of course, largely how people feel comfortable communicating these days.
Bradley Manning the person – not the figurehead – comes through in this film. Was that the base intention?
Yes. Manning is a human being, and the attempt to airbrush people who do interesting and provocative things – to try and turn them into perfect heroes, without showing their own internal complexes – does a disservice to us all. We’re all capable of being everyday heroes, people who stand up not because we’re Ghandi, Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela, but because we’re quirky, flawed, sometimes inspiring people who want to do something extraordinary.
The film spends time putting Manning’s decision to leak in the context of the sexual and gender issues he was going through. Was there a concern there that you might cloud his political will by confusing it with his yearning to change physically?
We thought about that a lot, not surprisingly, and ended up taking out a good bit about those personal issues in the final cut. I think we found a balance between those personal confessions and expressions of emotional distress and his own political motivations. The key thing is we used his own words. We presented his own motivations faithfully. This is what he was thinking about at the time. So it’s not like we pulled them out of thin air. And I think that focus helps to answer a mystery at the heart of the film, which is; if Manning leaked to this supremely anonymous electronic dropbox, how did he get caught? He was caught because he desperately needed someone to talk to. He reached out to Adrian Lamo, partly because he was publicly bisexual, as he acknowledges in the chat.
What did his gender issues provide to you as a storyteller?
His gender issues as well, I think, also seemed metaphorical. In his desire to become a woman, which I didn’t have any problem with – God bless him, if that’s what he wants to do – he was trying to make a difference personally, even as he was trying to make a difference politically. We did not intend, in any shape or form, to suggest he leaked because of what he was going through. The government tried to suggest there was some simple cause and effect; that he leaked because he was having a hissy fit.
Out of all the work you did on this film, was there one phrase that summed up the death of WikiLeaks?
The one phrase that became key to me was something said in passing by [Guardian journalist] James Ball, which was the phrase: “Noble cause corruption.” That, I think, will remain with me as a phrase. It’s a police phrase used to refer to dirty cops who plant joint on perps they can’t get any other way. But it has a real resonance I think.
'We Steal Secrets' is released in cinemas 12 July.
Images via Premier