Following on from 2010's The Social Network, Alex Gibney's new documentary We Steal Secrets might count as the latest in what will doubtless become an ongoing series of films about Kids Who Changed The World (While The Rest Of Us Struggled To Sign Into Netflix). Let's face it, the pulsing question we want answered by this vital information-age primer concerns the real identity of Julian Assange. Is he a libertarian crusader? A "humanitarian anarchist", as one analyst interviewed here puts it? Or is he just the slimiest character Simon Pegg might end up playing at some point - an alleged sex offender, resisting responsibility by any means, a seedier Zuckerberg, with Warholian hair and smirk? Can he squirm out of this one? Not quite, it turns out.
This was a rapid ascent - processor chips enable that - and Gibney grasps as such, scrolling past the tags and dashes of getting a stateless furysource like Wikileaks up and running to address the one-two combo of exclusives that made the website's name and sent the mainstream media - constrained by such analogue concerns as factchecking and print deadlines - scrambling: the notorious 2010 release of a 2007 video showing an U.S. Apache gunship gleefully opening fire on Iraqi journalists and civilians (as uploaded under the leading title "Collateral Murder") and the 2011 release of classified Pentagon documents pertaining to the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, as unlocked by troubled soldier-turned-hacker Bradley Manning.
This, Gibney posits, was the gamechanger. Now even the Guardian and the New York Times were chasing Assange and chums, desperate to bring these upstarts into the fold. But it was a shaky alliance. The Guardian's Nick Davies reports there were major disagreements over the handling of the Manning documents: where the seasoned journalists were reluctant to print anything that could get people on the ground killed, Assange clung to what was once an old-media credo - publish and be damned. The resultant scoop may be the apex of the Wikileaks story, but having stormed the castle, trouble (quickly) followed. The facts are still contentious and debated, the scars fresh, but no less deeply felt for that: the rape accusations that Assange tried to swat away as an obvious smear campaign, the boardroom bust-ups (very Facebook), the final (for now) retreat into laptopped isolation, and behind the doors of the Ecuadorian embassy, as these born loners revealed their true colours.
As in Client 9, his expert unpicking of the Elliot Spitzer scandal, Gibney is alert to the possibility his subject might stand for something positive and progressive, even as he puts his fingers on some compelling character flaws. We Steal Secrets consistently hones in on the psychologically revealing aspects of this story: take the original instant-messaging flurry that saw Manning and his Wikileaks contact Adrian Lamo bond over their confused sexual identities. What such exchanges come very eloquently to describe is an almost anti-social network of overstimulated outsiders - technically brilliant, socially awkward, attempting to drown their insecurities with Red Bull - who ported an adolescent hatred of bullying authority figures over into adulthood, only to run face-first into a moral firewall. They were trying to make the world a better place - and a truthseeker like Gibney can appreciate the effort - but they did so in the most guileless and muddle-headed of ways.
After the necessarily restrained Mea Maxima Culpa, this very plugged-in film once more showcases Gibney's great facility with pop culture, sourcing an Australian current-affairs report about hacking and dipping into 1983's War Games to make or underline a particular point, but its own form of journalism remains searching, human and fundamentally sound. There's a real coup in the film's final reel, as Gibney sits down with the two women at the centre of the Assange rape case: the kind of nuts-and-bolts journalism less curious news gatherers, keener to sensationalise or merely report the party line, somehow overlooked, leaving the women in question open to demonisation from the bent-knuckled, misogynist trolls lurking beneath the Internet's shadier bridges. (And we're hardly dissuaded from spotting the parallels between these HTTP-savvy outsiders and Assange's own boysy crew.)
What we have diagnosed here, finally, is a perception problem: an inability to see the world in any terms other than binary ones and zeroes, us and them. (Ironically, the Bush administration that first took America into war in the Middle East had much the same issue.) Assange's mission statement, established early on in the film and frequently returned to, was "we're going to fuck them all", no matter that the snafus his website was hellbent on exposing may have been plenty fucked already. Facts, like women, are difficult and delicate organisms that possibly deserve better than simply to be fucked and splurged, grabbed from one place and tossed heedlessly into the night; sometimes they demand to be treated with a degree of care and tact. Among this exceptional, era-defining film's many achievements: you come away from it convinced Alex Gibney would make a far better lover than Julian Assange.
We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks opens in selected cinemas from Friday. Swiss Toni is on holiday.