The irrepressible Alex Gibney turns his focus to the two men behind one of the biggest intelligence leaks of modern times.
The Space Shuttle Atlantis is preparing to launch when suddenly mission control’s computers are attacked. A virus called WANK worm starts tearing through NASA’s network. “How in the hell are we going to stop it?” a NASA engineer says, describing the situation. “How far has it gone already?” (“And what does ‘wank’ mean?”, he admits many at NASA asked.) This is the world’s introduction to hacktivist Julian Assange. Cue the news bulletins and thumping Midnight Oil soundtrack as the opening of Alex Gibney’s latest documentary takes on a near-superhero-levels of bombast. But this is not a film about heroes.
Assange’s online campaign against Gibney’s documentary has led to it being billed as “The film that WikiLeaks doesn’t want you to see”. Gibney faced several hurdles from the outset: he couldn’t talk to the story’s two main subjects; the WikiLeaks founder demanded $1m for an interview, which Gibney was not willing to pay; meanwhile, Bradley Manning, the US soldier who has since pleaded guilty to giving WikiLeaks a huge data dump of US state secrets, was locked in a maximum-security prison in Quantico, Virginia. Manning is currently on trial, facing life in prison for “aiding the enemy”.
Despite his refusal to participate, Assange appears throughout as Gibney sculpts the narrative from the hundreds of existing interviews with the Australian hacker and lots of juicy archive footage. But perhaps to Assange’s surprise, this film is not about him.
The most powerful voice actually comes from Manning, whose words pass across the screen soundtracked to the quiet clatter of a keyboard. Although he never speaks on camera, his motivations and emotional state are transmitted with the focused intimacy of a private online chat. The material is drawn from online conversations where Manning confided in fellow hacker Adrian Lamo. Manning’s loneliness becomes the heart of the film.
Another challenge is that the lives of computer hackers do not make for great cinema. We catch archive glimpses of Assange typing and plugging in computer monitors, but watching the WikiLeaks players ‘in action’ would be a boring 130 minutes. Instead Gibney tries to take the audience inside the internet, presenting it as a galaxy of passageways — with trapdoors that vital information can escape through. As an intelligence analyst in Iraq, Manning uploaded hundreds of thousands of files onto a CD labelled ‘Lady Gaga’. In one particularly gleeful digital sequence, soundwaves of Lady Gaga’s voice transform into lines of code and then into text from secret documents.
These thousands of glowing secrets are a fuse that ignited the Arab Spring, pushed Iceland’s banking system to collapse and put American diplomacy on the backfoot around the world. At a time when the scale of government access to our personal data is only starting to become clear, Gibney puts a spotlight on how 9/11 pushed state bureaucracies to collect more data on their citizens than ever before — 60,000 phone calls per second were recorded — and at the same time share that information with more and more officials. It also reflects on the crushing isolation that whistleblowers like Manning face when they reveal their secrets to us.
More about the Julian Assange saga?
Goes beyond Assange — and actually feels like a heist film.
This is saying something important. Check your Facebook settings.