"We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks," by Alex Gibney (Director)
Published by Independent (2013)
Reviewed by Clara Spera
The year 2013 is shaping up to be a banner one for documentary film about information disclosures—both the government’s and yours. Bradley Manning’s conviction and sentencing the other day offers a good moment to take note of two new films, one of them largely about her and the events she unleashed. “Terms and Conditions May Apply” is a low budget film by Cullen Hoback, who wants to let you know what you’ve gotten yourself into by using services such as Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter—or by using just about anything else on the internet, text applications on your phone or GPS navigators in your car. It is currently playing in a limited release around the country. We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, by contrast, was released to some attention back in March and is coming out DVD in early October. It is already available from Amazon for direct streaming. The films are not of equal weight or value.
The road to documentary film-watching Hell is paved with Hoback’s good intentions. “Terms and Conditions May Apply” offers what the director clearly sees as an honest explanation of privacy concerns and data abuse in our new technological age. Others may see it as sensationalist fear-mongering. The film strives to let his viewers know the costs the average user is incurring with his or her engagement with modern technology. If the goal is to frighten viewers, he certainly succeeds. The viewer leaves wanting to get rid of the phone and the Facebook account, frustrated that this is impossible, and annoyed at the Catch-22 of click-through agreements that sign away all of our lives. As we are told near the end of the film, “You have nothing to hide until you do. And you are not necessarily going to know [if or when] you have [something] to hide or not.”
The trouble is that the movie does not actually tell us much we don’t already know. The movie actually suffers from a case of bad timing; it was finished before Edward Snowden’s revelations became public. And Facebook’s terms of service, however nasty, are pretty tame compared to bulk universal metadata collection.
Even controlling for our desensitization, the film is mostly old news. Hoback compiles an impressive number of important and revealing past interviews and news segments, but with the exception of a few original interviews of his own, his material is mostly organized regurgitation. More frustrating is that Hoback offers very few answers to the big questions he poses. A moviegoer who has relatively little understanding of the ability of service providers or phone companies to collect, compile and distribute personal data will leave the theater terrified, but no action items to alleviate the fear. Hoback concedes that very few people are willing to live a life without basic services like a cell phone and an internet connection, nor are many people willing to give up their various social networking accounts. Given that, the real question that Hoback should have asked is what then? Consumers seem a lot less concerned about this than privacy advocates.
Other than a bizarre scene in which Hoback camps out in front of Mark Zuckerberg’s California home in an attempt to prove the point that nobody, not even Mark Zuckerberg, likes to be constantly monitored, Hoback doesn’t offer us any new angles or proactive advice. We are told that that law-making bodies from state senates to the US House of Representatives are unduly influenced by large technology and Silicon Valley lobbyists, that a President who once declared that government needs “to find a way forward so that we can stop terrorists while protecting privacy and liberty of innocent Americans” hasn’t upheld his campaign promises, and that we can be held by the police or another government authority for poorly timed or constructed jokes on our Twitter feeds or Facebook profiles. But if any of this is true, Hoback offers no path forward.
The film ends with Hoback asking his interviewees: “So, do you think privacy is dead?” Each person gives some form or another of affirmative answer, some with more conviction than others. But again, no one makes any constructive suggestions. So “be afraid, be very afraid” - and be paralyzed. That’s really all “Terms and Conditions May Apply” has to say.
We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, by contrast, is a gripping, nuanced, informative, and sometimes funny, account of one of the most important recent developments in American secrecy policy. It is a much lengthier and more ambitious documentary. At just over two hours, viewers are given a detailed (though somewhat choppy) history of the birth, triumph and demise of WikiLeaks and its notorious founder, Julian Assange. The documentary also takes viewers through the much more sympathy-inducing side story of the young and troubled Army private first class who would eventually provide to Wikileaks materials revealing the greatest leak “in the history of this particular planet.” (Snowden and his stolen NSA files were not yet publicly known to "this particular planet" when the film was made, of course.)
The film offers an admirably balanced and relatively unbiased view of its subjects, although you wouldn’t know that if you only saw the first third of the film. After drawing a picture of Assange’s troubled youth and genius computer mind, I was ready to write the film off as a sycophantic tribute to the WikiLeaks founder. He is described as a “humanitarian anarchist,” an “infamous hacker,” a crusader for government transparency. But the more the film goes on, the more uneasy the viewer, along with the director and narrator, Alex Gibney, becomes. The film slowly changes our minds about Assange: once a hero in defense of basic truths and accountability, he becomes paranoid, manipulative and—by the end—thoroughly unlikable.
Like “Terms and Conditions May Apply” there may not be all that much new information in We Steal Secrets for someone who keeps up with the news. There are, however, some excellent and revealing interviews, like with all of the former WikiLeaks employees who ultimately grew uneasy about Assange. Gibney also spends time with General Michael Hayden, former CIA Director and former Director of the NSA, who gives the film its title when he insists: “[Nations] need to have secrets in order to be successful. If they are widely known you cannot accomplish your work. Now I’m going to be very candid: We steal secrets. We steal other nation’s secrets. One cannot do that above board and be very successful for a very long period of time.”
But the way in which Gibney presents his narrative is ultimately much more compelling than Hoback’s vision. Though at times disjointed, Gibney’s film doesn’t try to fuel the film with scare tactics; he lets the news clips, interviews and interviewee insights speak for themselves. He does relatively little narrating, unlike Hoback, and his own opinion in the Assange affair is itself at first unclear, allowing his viewers to mold their own understandings of the story as it unfolds. The awkward adolescent portrait of Assange reminds us that he is very human, but the interview with one of the victims of his alleged sexual assaults force us to contend with the reality that the idealistic mission of WikiLeaks is not the same as the personality of its founder—much as Assange has sought to merge the two.
The end result is a certain horror both at the treatment of Assange and at Assange himself. Gibney’s amasses a shocking array of tapes of politicians and television personalities calling for Assange’s arrest and droning, but Gibney is unsparing also in his portrayal of Assange’s own behavior towards his WikiLeaks colleagues in the aftermath of INTERPOL’s call for his arrest. And Assange sometimes hangs himself with his own words—as when he declares himself comfortable with people getting killed as a result of his work because “if an Afghan helps coalition forces, then he deserves to die.” The film makes us struggle with whether we should think of Assange as a freedom-fighting hero, a maniacal and reckless zealot, or just a calculating creep? Or maybe all three?
Meanwhile, Gibney treats Bradley Manning throughout the film in a consistently sympathetic fashion—though Manning certainly comes off as strange and troubled. By focusing on the agonized online chat log between Manning and the hacker who turned him in, Gibney delves deeply into his reasons for leaking the documents, and pulls no punches about Manning's treatment after his arrest. Nick Davies of the Guardian aptly sums up the film’s apparent bottom line on this point:
[Manning] says this is material that the people of the world need to know. It was naive to dump the whole lot without thinking ahead about how that was going to be handled. [But to] lock this guy up for decades and effectively put him through forms of torture, that’s a politically motivated act of vengeance on someone that hasn’t damaged national security. He caused embarrassment.
Both supporters of WikiLeaks and its opponents will find much to object to in We Steal Secrets politically, but the film is excellent, both informative and riveting. And where it is opinionated, it still manages to be weirdly balanced. Gibney packs a lot in to just over two hours, but those two hours go by a lot faster than the almost 90 minutes of preaching in Hoback’s film.
(Clara Spera is a graduate student at The University of Cambridge and a summer intern for Lawfare.)