The Sydney Film Festival kicks off today, with a strong showing for docos seeing over 50 national and international offerings, including the latest from Alex Gibney, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks.
The cult of Julian Assange is such that it’s almost impossible to talk about WikiLeaks as an organisation without conflating it with his alleged misdemeanours and secretion within the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.
As small an outfit as it is, there’s more to WikiLeaks than Assange. Former journalist turned documentary maker Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in The Room, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House of God) has crafted an engaging and impressively slick doco that broadens the scope commendably.
Bombarding us with a deluge of information as vast as the infamous leaks themselves, he never loses track of the story and its eccentric cast of renegades, including Private Bradley Manning, the man who allegedly leaked the US embassy cables and the infamous video footage of a helicopter gunning down innocents to the blood-curdling celebrations of its crew.
Finally facing trial three years after his arrest, his input comes in the form of his surprisingly moving emails that seem to suggest a lost soul trying to do the right thing while coping with his own identity crisis.
His trusted confidante, fellow tech geek and infamous hacker Adrian Lamo, comes across as less sympathetic. A rather shady character with dubious intentions, he professes to wear masks like an actor, and also claims to have Aspergers.
Who knew there were other WikiLeaks employees? As several testify to camera, what started as a manifesto to expose government corruption and keep information free, soon got lost in the complexities of Assange’s personal ambitions. He’s lost a few friends, and colleagues, along the way, shall we say?
Assange himself does not come across well either. The man himself is only present via archive footage, having refused Gibney an interview except on two equally-whacked out conditions, which the director declines.
There are US government officials, past and present, and a Guardian journalist too. Indeed, the New York Times, Guardian and co don’t fare that well either, having been perfectly willing to blow the whistle, but then backing off as soon as the heat rose.
A stunning opening sequence splicing stock NASA footage with slick, computer-generated rays of information dancing across the globe demonstrates Gibney’s ability to seamlessly blend talking heads, text and striking imagery and enthuse it with electricity. The impressive reach of this doco is breathtaking and, unlike the more heavy handed work of Michael Moore, allows you the space to draw your own conclusions on this motley crew.
Any film that works in the term ‘worm wanker’ within the first five minutes is gold in my book. While we do start with Assange’s rise as a young Melbourne-based hacker whose ability to bust into government systems appears to know no bounds, it’s a refreshing exploration indeed that looks beyond the man, and into the wider ramifications of WikiLeaks as a whole.
Stephen A Russell
We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks showing at the Sydney Film Festival June 12 and 15, then on general release July 4.