Every documentary filmmaker begins with deciding on the story to be told, and then how to sustain audience interest.
If your goal is to inform the public or take a stand on an important issue by explaining its origins and exposing wrongdoers then you go one way. If your goal is to entertain and shroud your motives by exploring murky personality contradictions, you go another.
We Steal Secrets, Alex Gibney’s latest documentary (or is it a docudrama?), skillfully made with the backing of major media company, tries to do both.
Ironically, that company, Comcast-Universal, owners of NBC, is at the same time having a major success with another movie, Fast and Furious 6, glamorizing a criminal gang that relies on speedy cars.
You could say that Wikileaks, the subject of We Steal Secret,s also began with a fury – a fury against war and secrecy, and was moving as fast as it could to challenge media complacency in the digital realm.
Now, it is being ganged up on by a media that invariably builds you up before tearing you down.
The docu-tract uses slick graphics to creatively report on the origins and impact of Wikileaks, the online whistleblower collective, but then, for “balance” and perhaps to pre-empt any criticisms of any bias, especially too much ideological sympathy, opened the tap on endless criticisms by Wiki-dissidents who have turned on founder Julian Assange, as well as the pathetic patriot hacker turned informant who ratted out Manning.
The movie revels in all the negatives that surround him, and his chief and gutsy leaker, Private First Class Bradley Manning, who is on the eve of a trial that could land him behind bars for life under the 1917 Espionage Act.font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>On June 1, Manning supporters will rally at the Virginia base at which he is being held. ABC News reports: "A large crowd is expected at Fort Meade this weekend for a mass demonstration in support of Army Private First Class Bradley Manning.” His trial begins June 3. font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>Says Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights: "The Manning trial is occurring in the context of perhaps the most repressive atmosphere for free press in recent memory. It was bad enough that the Obama administration prosecuted twice the number of whistleblowers than all prior administrations combined. Then it went after logs and records of journalists and publishers…”
Manning’s recent and widely unreported statement in Court explaining his reasons for making the secret documents public is not in the film.
The film mentions, but does not explore, Manning’s claim that he offered his data first to mainstream newspapers, including the Washington Post, that showed no interest.
Their failure to publish the story was one of the reasons the soldier turned to Wikileaks. And it is also one of the reasons that validates Wikileaks’ claim of having a journalistic mission.
So, the stakes are high, and it’s surprising that the film’s very title, “We Steal Secrets,” an idea that many might be taken as a Wiki-boast, was really an admission by former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden about what the U.S. government, not Wikileaks, is all about. Balancing his espionage boosterism is a former Republican Justice Department hack.
It is very rare for an Indy filmmaker to land interviews with top intelligence honchos. Who had the juice to get this “get” as major interviews are called in the news world.
Supporters of Assange like civil libertarians, media freedom groups, Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, or critics like Noam Chomsky, are conspicuously absent.
As a result, We Are Secrets seems more like a case for the prosecution than the defense, at least in the Court of Public opinion.
The film has had a big promotional push and is already playing in three theaters in New York, a success that masks some of its editorial failings including its in your face attempt at “fairness and balance,” the pretext the one-siders at FOX use as their claim to credibility.
The promotional hype for the film initially made it seem like an endorsement of Assange, until you read it closely.
“Filmed with the startling immediacy of unfolding history, Academy Award®-winning director Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks details the creation of Julian Assange’s controversial website, which facilitated the largest security breach in U.S. history. Hailed by some as a free-speech hero and others as a traitor and terrorist, …”
So, there you are: the movie’s real question: is Assange a good guy or not? And what about Manning? Why did he do what he did? So, at the outset, Gibney leaves the political plane for a psychological, or even, a psychiatric one. He is out to personalize and in the process depoliticize a very political issue for what’s known in the news-biz as “character-based story telling.”
The mantra; stick with people, not their passions, individuals not ideas.
Yes, there’s lots of information about the goals and methods of Wikileaks, but that becomes in this movie a subtext to a more Shakespearean tragedy: the rise and fall of idealists who turn into their opposites, or are using politics to work out their twisted personal issues.
Out goes more film time devoted to war crimes and information concealment; and, in comes juicy stories about sex without condoms, cross-dressing, and gender conflicts to soften the brew.
The “worthy” appearance of investigation quickly turns into the nasty reality of exploitation with the focus on their subject’s flaws, not their bravery, a theme I am sure played well in the conservative board room at Comcast.
•The Village Voice asks in its review, “is a strong point of view really such a bad thing? The movie leaves you feeling lost and confused. Fix. Please.”