Wikileaks has been around since 2006. But it wasn’t until 2010 that Wikileaks became a household name. This was when the organization released a massive amount of files pertaining to United States military strategies. These files made both Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, the man responsible for leaking them, and Julian Assange, the founder and media representative of Wikileaks, instant celebrities. You could see Assange talking to several political pundits with Chelsea’s picture plastered next to him. He talked about net neutrality and the need to be as transparent as possible while doing government activities with the people who support them. But this was all overshadowed by events that started coming out after this major information dump. And the story becomes complicated. This is where Gibney’s documentary comes in.
Gibney seems to be more interested in this part of the story than he was to the actual secrets revealed and the process to which Wikileaks got them. He did not have Julian Assange available to give a first hand account of anything so he culled footage of him from the massive amounts of interviews he did and from other first hand accounts of his personality. We see him get accused of sexual assault and the resulting shit storm that he goes through. We see him freak out on interviewers for asking questions about such gossipy things (which I felt he was in his right mind to freak out about because I wouldn’t want to ask if I raped a couple of girls for the thousandth time when I have real issues that I care about and want to talk about on air) and retreat into a conspiracy theory hole that ends up alienating his co-workers and the public that supports him.
To contrast this story, he also tells how Chelsea Manning got caught for leaking and put into jail. Gibney seemed to have real heartfelt affection for this man. She becomes the emotional core of the story, and I almost wish this film was more about her than Julian Assange. We see his IM chats that she had with the man who ended up turning him in and his sense of loneliness is compelling. She also seemed to feel her sense of right and wrong more acutely than anyone around her. When people talk about her, we see a deeply emotional and conflicted trans person quite clearly. Her level of clearance probably should never have been given to her, but it did and the result was purely the government’s fault for essentially leaving the digital material lying around.
Gibney relies on interviews with non-primary interview subjects, graphics and third-party interview footage to tell his story. This leads to a heavy hand that guides the arc of the story that I didn’t always appreciate. I felt that at certain points he was warping the story in order to tell a more compelling story and not necessarily the truth. For instance he interviews the man who turns in Chelsea Manning. We see a good portion of their conversation via IM and he contrasts his messages of support to this man saying that he felt like he was a patriot for doing the things he did. So I got the impression that this man was actually a hypocrite when in reality he might not have been. In retrospect he might have made the wrong decision in the eyes of the bleeding heart liberals (including myself) that would end up watching this film but in his eyes it was the only one that he could make. Instead of getting into why he did it, we just see him as this turncoat who is supporting an obviously mentally disturbed man/woman one moment and turning him into the government the next. Even his crying seems to be forced when in fact it probably came from a deep sense of regret.
I knew that this type of documentary is geared towards my views before I even started watching it. Thus it supports my notions that what Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange were right in doing what they did, even if they weren’t perfect people. (Just like Edward Snowden was right) But I wonder if anyone who didn’t know as much about this thing or had completely different views from my own would have gotten anything out of this account? I can’t help but wonder this as I think back on this movie. Each movie is reaching for a specific audience and documentaries are especially guilty of playing into their audience expectations. (Bowling for Columbine anyone?) So if someone who didn’t find what Assange and Manning did compelling and patriotic would they have made a more even-handed documentary or would it have been just as skewed but in the other direction?