"The Internet is not a good place for secrets." That’s how Alex Gibney puts it in the beginning of his latest investigative documentary, "We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks," which is as much about the rise and fall of the whistleblowing site as it is of its creator, Julian Assange.
"We Steal Secrets" chronicles the overnight stardom of WikiLeaks and Assange after the site—essentially an anonymous drop-box for secret information and news leaks—published documents exposing highly classified military materials, including the "Collateral Murder" video (footage from a 2007 airstrike in Baghdad where two Reuters journalists were mistaken as insurgents). That same information was also printed in major newspapers around the world like the New York Times and The Guardian, which teamed with WikiLeaks to distribute the information.
What should have been a monumental moment in transparency and free information led to the government playing the "power of nightmares" card, making the American public believe that this information was harmful out in the pubic, while also tracking down the whistleblower, Private First Class Bradley Manning, who will soon stand trail for his alleged leak of the most classified documents in American history. Assange, on the other hand, grew out of control with power and for close to a year has been living in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London as police wait to arrest him outside the building for questioning from Swedish authorities on sexual acts with two women.
What makes "We Steal Secrets" quite an astonishing work is how compelling it makes out Assange and Manning even though Gibney was never able to interview either on camera—Manning is in a military prison (allegedly enduring torture tactics) while Assange would not talk to Gibney unless the director paid for the interview.
Here Gibney talks to Film.com about following the story and if we’ll ever see a site like WikiLeaks again.
FILM.COM: A big thing I took away from the film is that if Julian Assange were not so self-destructive we would have a completely different view of WikiLeaks and its importance. Do you agree?
ALEX GIBNEY: I agree. To be honest going into the project I thought it was a simple David vs. Goliath story. I had read the Raffi Khatchadourian piece about Julian in the New Yorker and I thought, wow, what a fantastic and interesting character, and even prior to the Afghan War Logs I’d seen "Collateral Murder" online and I thought this is really impressive. But the more I dug into it the more it seemed like a great ongoing opportunity was lost. It’s tricky because the leak of those documents was I think a tremendous boon to understanding a lot of things. And they were very important. But there was a moment there when the whole kind of moral balance of leaks could have been pushed into a different direction if Julian hadn’t been so unable to listen to other people. And frankly if the journalists had been a little bit more adult in terms of trying to work with Julian. But there was a moment that was lost because the alliance between Julian and WikiLeaks and these mainstream news organizations blew apart when the politicians in Washington were able to separate Julian from the rest of the crowd and that was too bad. And I think the media deserves some of the blame for that, but I think Julian also.
You’ve said in the past that you can’t go into these movies relaying on getting a key interview, you have to go where the story takes you. Like in Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room and Casino Jack and the United States of Money, you don’t bag the big interview but still find a way to give us an idea of who the main players are.
You have to stick with where the story takes you. You can’t pretend that access is necessarily the only thing that matters. I think that Julian though that access was the only thing that mattered because early on when he became famous a lot of people were coming to him and asking for access and Julian was setting very steep terms for access. I told Julian from the beginning that I was making the movie whether he gave me access or not and he said to me that if I don’t give you access your film will not be legitimate and I found that bizarre. It’s like I did a film on the Vatican, the Pope didn’t give me access! [Laughs] And that’s the relevant comparison with Jack Abramoff, I tried very hard to talk to Jack and I did talk to him in prison but I wasn’t able to film him. At the same time you have to keep pursuing the story and find a way to tell it that seems right. You have to live with the constraints as well as the opportunities.
And you note in the movie that you and Julian did have a big sit down. Was that basically just a way for him to negotiate with you?
Yes. It was a way to negotiate something out of me and to see if he could get more "intel" as he always called it, when I refused to put up big money for an interview. And I joked with him, I said, "You say that the market rate for an interview is a million dollars, I must be the only person on the planet who hasn’t interviewed you." I don’t pay for interviews. So then he asked me if I’d gather intel on all the interview subjects, in other words would I spy on them for him? I found that a really bizarre request from a guy running a transparency organization that’s supposed to be speaking truth to power.
How long were you and your team trying to get him?
A long time, we tried right until the very end. We kept trying to get him to talk, so this was over the course of two years. Look, I met him early on when we first started, I liked him when I first met him, it was for his 40th birthday party and finally we had this other meeting. And there were a lot of intermediaries who were trying to go to him on my behalf telling him that it’s a good idea that he talk. We tried everything. But at the end of the day Julian wants control, he’s a spin doctor and he wants to believe that he’s the puppeteer pulling the strings of everyone.
And it was a completely different animal to try to get to Bradley Manning.
It’s impossible. The government had him under lock and key. If there was a journalist that ever got to Bradley Manning I didn’t know about it. But it’s a peculiar thing from a filmmaking standpoint, I can’t get to my two main characters. So what do you do?
I think that’s what makes the Mark Davis footage you show very important to your film.
I learned very early on when I was making "Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room," I tried very hard to get to Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling and I didn’t get to either of them, but there’s always a way to tell a story and you just keep digging, asking questions, going to as many people as you can, and you hope you find a way and then cinematically you have to find a way to represent things that you end up knowing in ways you may not be able to put on the screen. I wanted to know more about the Julian Assange before he got famous, because I talked to a lot of people about that person.
I saw an Australian documentary that was done by Mark Davis, who is a wonderful filmmaker and journalist and does exactly the kind of thing that you should do, just go out and see if you can find Julian, and he found him and he started hanging out with him and starting shooting footage of him. And ultimately I was able to make a deal to license that footage, so you get a sense of Julian before he gets famous, who I think is a more interesting character and frankly the first half of the film you’re thinking sign me up for the Julian Assange crusade. He’s very engaging, self-deprecating, interesting, very smart. So I think that Mark Davis footage was a wonderful way of showing the tremendous qualities of his character. There was an aspect of Julian that was fantastic and then there was another side.
Is the footage we see also in Mark’s film or outtakes?
Both. And Mark is a big defender of Julian and I put him in my film because he brought a lot of balance to that key point in the story surrounding the Afghan War Logs, where a number of journalists said Julian didn’t care at all about the harm that might come to informants and Mark Davis says forthrightly in the film, "No he did cared very deeply." So that is important because it gives a more balanced perspective of Assange.
And with Bradley Manning you use the online chat he has with hacker Adrian Lamo.
They were published in Wired and when we started making the film some of the chats had been published but not all, then the full batch, as far as we know, were released and it really gives you a portrait of a man that was really extraordinary, and a portrait in his own words. We reckoned for a long time what kind of cinematic tricks we would use, would someone read them? Ultimately we decided that the text is how he presented himself, so this is how we should present him, through text.
By the end of the film I felt Julian Assange was more into the thrill of the "hack" than allowing information to reign free through WikiLeaks. How do you feel?
Well, he says early on that his motivation is "crushing bastards." Well, that’s a peculiar statement. You don’t want bastards but crushing bastards? That’s the idea? He wants to crush them? He wants to do what bastards do? So that’s a peculiar statement. But there’s also a lot of the idealist in Julian Assange and nobody should forget that. The problem is, yeah, he was one man against the world and didn’t have a lot of opportunity, nor did he allow himself the humility to learn about how he should have been publishing this material in a responsible way.
I don’t think the whistleblower will ever go away, but can something ever like a WikiLeaks be created again?
The New Yorker has now established an electronic drop box for anonymous leaks, and it was designed by Aaron Swartz, the Internet activist who recently committed suicide. It’s a powerful precedent, WikiLeaks, that will continue to live on but it doesn’t have to live on only at WikiLeaks.
Before we go, what’s the latest with the Lance Armstrong film that you’ve been making for years now it seems?
Yeah. It should be finished editorially soon and it will probably show up in the fall.
Has the structure of it changed since Armstrong’s admission of using performance-enhancing drugs?
You can figure that since I’ve been working on it since 2008 a lot has changed over that time. [Laughs]
"We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks" is in theaters today.