“Unbelievable,” says Alex Gibney. “Once more Julian Assange has found a way to insert himself into a story that had managed to pass him by.”
Sitting in an empty restaurant in Edinburgh two days after the news breaks that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden is seeking political asylum in Ecuador, with help from the WikiLeaks legal team, the Oscar-winning director of Taxi to the Dark Side is shaking his head in disbelief at the website founder’s sudden prominence in the story of the moment. His incredulity is hardly surprising: Gibney’s new film, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, builds up a picture of Assange that is very different from the one Assange and his supporters have cultivated, of a noble crusader fighting for truth and transparency.
Not that Gibney set out to take down Assange. In fact, he’d been tremendously impressed with WikiLeaks and its ability to facilitate the release of information such as the Afghan and Iraqi war logs. “Honestly, as a filmmaker and/or journalist, the revelations of those WikiLeaks leaks continue to be powerful and important.”
But as Gibney delved deeper into the story of the site and its founder, his admiration for Assange as a “classic David and Goliath figure” (which, for the record, he thinks the first half of his film does still reflect), began to wane. What he began to realise was that Assange, who has been taking refuge in Ecuador’s London embassy for the last year to avoid answering questions in Sweden about sex crime allegations, was a very binary figure with a fatal flaw. “He can’t stand to be held to account. I think most of us feel that way, but he’s the extreme version of it.”
He’s referring to Assange’s determination to conflate the sex allegations brought against him by two of his former volunteers with the WikiLeaks revelations. If he went to Sweden to confront the allegations, his thinking went, the authorities might extradite him to the US to face prosecution for leaking military secrets. As the film suggests, however, this wasn’t necessarily the case. “Everyone at the time was begging him to take care of the problem and not to make it part of WikiLeaks. But, inevitably, his way of not being held to account was to say this wasn’t a personal matter at all. It was a political matter. But that kind of grand lie was what made him a hugely famous person.”
Gibney’s own attempts to secure an interview with Assange reinforced his disenchantment. Informed that the market value for an Assange interview at the time was $1 million, Gibney told him he didn’t pay for interviews, so Assange countered with a telling offer: “He said, ‘Well, if you’re not going to pay me, why don’t you spy on the other interview subjects and report back to me.’ If I did that, maybe he would consider an interview.” Gibney was astonished. “This is the guy who is supposed to be all about source protection and he wants me to snitch on all the other people I spoke to! No!”
In many respects, though, Assange is exactly the kind of blinded-by-hubris character to whom Gibney often ends up gravitating (he’s currently finishing up a film about Lance Armstrong after all, and in the past has made films about disgraced New York mayor Eliot Spitzer and Enron executives Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling). “I am interested in these flawed characters,” he nods. “And I’m interested in embracing the contradictions.”
Having made documentaries on counter-culture heroes such as Hunter S Thompson and Ken Kesey, Gibney is also interested in those who dare to pull the curtain back on society – and end up fundamentally changed by what they see. In the Wiki Leaks story that role is fulfilled by Bradley Manning, the young American soldier currently on trial for leaking thousands of documents to WikiLeaks while working as an intelligence analyst in Baghdad.
“I think he’s different from Kesey and Thompson in the sense the he’s a much more shy and introspective character and those two were larger than life,” offers Gibney. “But at the same time, he had a powerful sense that he was glimpsing stuff, like they did, which turned the world upside down.”
Manning, who has been locked up since before Gibney started making the film, hasn’t spoken to anyone in the media about his ordeal. In We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, Gibney tells his astonishing story through chat-room transcripts of intimate online conversations he had with hacker Adrien Lamo, the person who put him in touch with Wiki Leaks, and ultimately turned him in to the authorities. It’s a fascinating approach to Manning’s story, which will also be dramatised at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe in the play The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning. How does Gibney feel about fictionalised interpretations of the story he’s telling here, especially now that Benedict Cumberbatch is about to be seen as Assange in the forthcoming film The Fifth Estate. “I think it’s OK,” says the director. “Sometimes fiction films can get at stuff that non- fiction can’t. In particular they can explore psychological territory that non-fiction can’t.”
And what of the role of traditional media in the information age? Does he think Assange’s fall from grace might make people question alternative media in the same way they do the mainstream press?
“I think what you raise is a very important point,” says Gibney. “There are reasons to be distrustful of the mainstream media. But we shouldn’t conclude from that that everything that is not the mainstream media is therefore trustworthy. It’s all about trust. At the end of the day there are some fantastic investigative pieces that are still being done by the mainstream media and in some ways the values of traditional media are very much enhanced by this story. There are also some things that are great about the blogosphere. But we should all be wise to the fact that there are as many lies on the internet as there are truths. And it’s still on us to tell the difference.”
• We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks is in cinemas from 12 July; The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning is at the Pleasance at St Thomas of Aquin’s High School, 6-25 August, as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe; The Fifth Estate will be released in cinemas on 1 January 2014. Twitter: @aliharkness