Interview: Alex Gibney, Oscar-winning director of 'We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks'
The documentary examines Julian Assange, his controversial website, and incarcerated soldier Bradley Manning who supplied the site with thousands of classified documents
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 website which facilitated the largest security breach in U.S. history. Hailed by some as a free-speech hero and derided by others as a traitor and terrorist, the enigmatic Assange’s rise and fall are paralleled with the story of PFC Bradley Manning, the troubled young soldier who downloaded and made available to WikiLeaks an enormous cache of classified documents from U.S. military and diplomatic servers, revealing the behind-the-scenes workings of our government’s international diplomacy and military strategy. Since June of last year Assange has avoided extradition by holing up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London where he has been grated diplomatic asylum. Manning was arrested in May 2010 and is in prison awaiting trial for 22 counts against the U.S. government, including aiding the enemy. Gibney’s documentary is a riveting, multi-layered tale about transparency in the information age and our ever-elusive search for the truth.
MSN Movies: I can’t believe how many of your documentaries I’ve seen in the past few months: “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God,” about the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, “Magic Trip” about Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters on their 1964 cross-country bus trip, and “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer.” I assume going from one radically different topic to another keeps things very interesting!
Alex Gibney: Yes, and sometimes it’s my salvation because you can get your head so far into something and start to lose perspective. But all of my films have odd schedules. Some can go off the rails at times—you won’t hear anything about them for years and then suddenly they’re back, like the one I’m working on right now about Lance Armstrong.
I know there’s an eternal debate about the objectivity of documentarians. As I watched this film it sure didn't seem like you had any kind of preconceived agenda. I found myself wildly changing my opinions about both Julian Assange and Bradley Manning throughout the film. Was that your experience as you were making it?
Absolutely! I came into this film thinking it was a David and Goliath story about a very potent character who was holding powerful governments and corporations to account. It became very interesting to me to see how dangerous it is to imagine that any of your heroes are without fault!
Yes, it was fascinating to see how the lure of fame and worldwide acclaim seemed to affect Assange.
I think that when you become convinced that your mission is right, and this was certainly true in my film about the Catholic Church, you suddenly feel like you’re entitled to bend the rules, to behave in ways that you would decry in others.
Many of your films are topical, but the players in this one are so hotly debated and in the news that it must have seemed like you were walking into a minefield at times. Did that make it harder to get people to talk to you?
Yes, it did, and unfortunately I came upon Julian Assange at a time when he had already become famous and kind of written a narrative for himself that was set in stone. So it became more difficult now that he was this celebrity figure instead of someone who was willing to reflect honestly about his own conflicts and foibles.
Maybe one day he’ll be more open to that. Did you try to get Hillary Clinton to speak on camera or anyone from the State Department?
I didn’t. Well, we sent out some official requests but we didn’t anticipate that they would talk to us about these cases.
Right. And, frankly, we all know what her official line would have been.
In a way that’s part of the problem. Wouldn’t it be nice if we lived in a world where people in positions of power could actually speak honestly? Part of it is our fault, because when they do speak honestly, we jump up and down and scream, “Oh, you said that! Gotcha!” But another part of the problem is the role of press agents and publicists. Everybody wants to control their spin, and frankly, I think that’s what happened with Julian. Suddenly, he wasn’t so interested in conveying the truth as he was in staying on message, as a politician would do. He ultimately became the politician he would have otherwise detested.
Watching that footage of that video from Baghdad that you show of the civilians being killed by our forces is absolutely horrifying. When I saw that, I found myself thinking, “Damn right this kind of stuff should be released!” and I was totally in the WikiLeaks camp. And then in other instances, I get why our government would so vigorously object. Even though this information is already out there, I can’t imagine that the State Department is going to love this film.
No, they won’t. But it’s interesting—in many ways even the State Department has come around. There was a quote by Hillary Clinton in David Sanger’s recent book about drones where she basically said there was a very positive aspect to the whole WikiLeaks thing in the sense that it caused a lot of change that they never would have predicted. I think even the State Department concedes that there was no real lasting damage done.
For me, the most unsympathetic character in the film is computer hacker Adrian Lamo, Bradley Manning’s online “friend” who blew the whistle on him. Do you ever feel protective of your interview subjects? Do you worry how certain people like Lamo are going to come across in the film?
Well, my job is to always try to truthfully present people as they present themselves. And to give enough context to understand what it’s all about. With Lamo, most people feel that he was a liar who betrayed Bradley Manning who was communicating with him in confidence. We show a very ironic moment of someone attacking Lamo by saying, “You should be sent to Guantanamo!” What a weird thing for somebody in a progressive audience to say, right? And then yet at the end of the movie you see Lamo weeping about what has happened. I do think there’s a part of him that feels kind of torn up inside. I just try to present people as fairly as possible.
Do you think that Julian Assange has seen the film?
He hasn’t seen it yet but he’s already denounced it. So has Oliver Stone!
Oh, really? How did Stone get involved?
He went to visit Julian at the Ecuadorian embassy and tweeted a denunciation of the film.
When I watched the documentary I realized the extent to which I allowed the media to form my impression of Bradley Manning. There’s so much about him that I learned about him in this film that surprised me. I find him to be such a sad, tragic figure.
Do you think the U.S. government is leaning toward any leniency in the Manning case?
No, I don’t. I think the government wants to make an example out of him.
Even though so many people support him?
I think the military is counting on many people seeing him as a traitor once the trial starts. Look, I’m the first one to say that I would never advocate for a military in which every soldier is conveying classified information as soon as it comes into their hands. But I think the U.S. military is going to try very hard to make an example of Manning and send him away for a very, very long time.
It’s such a tragic story. At the beginning it seemed like he wasn’t that careful with the information he was passing on, but then it seemed like he was definitely holding back more sensitive material. I kept changing how I felt about him, but I found myself very grateful that some of that stuff did get released.
Yes, some of it should have. It’s not simple. Everybody wants it to be simple, but it really isn’t.
Right, we always want to identify the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” Given the trial that’s coming, are you considering making any addendums to the film?
It’s possible. But for now it seems like we’ve come to an ending point—a certain moment in time where both Julian Assange and Bradley Manning are in prison—Assange in one of his own making and Manning in a prison that the Department of Defense cooked up for him.
Isn’t it odd that the New York Times wasn’t really held accountable for their role in releasing those documents?
I think it’s pretty clear that the Obama Administration doesn’t want to pick a fight with the New York Times.
It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out. And then there’s the whole issue of Assange’s sexual assault charges from those women in Sweden. When I first heard about that I just assumed he was being framed.
I thought that, too.
But those women seem extremely credible. And then, if he did do it, you still see other people using it in a way to suit their needs. Your film is very troubling in that kind of healthy way that makes us want to go out and learn more, do more research.
Nothing is simple here. I think everyone assumed initially, including me, that the assault charges were a put-up job to discredit a guy who had embarrassed the U.S. government. But I can’t find any evidence of that. Just the opposite, in fact. I find a lot of evidence that this was a guy who was behaving very badly.
Did you ever hesitate about including the Swedish episode in the film?
Yes, I debated for a long time whether we should deal with it. But in the end I decided to include it because Julian included it. Julian intentionally made that personal story a part of his “transparency agenda.” And frankly, I think for a period of time, it paid dividends for him. Suddenly, it was like a spy thriller with a story that nobody could get enough of and he became more famous than anybody could possibly have imagined because he was part of this CIA intrigue, with sex at the heart of it, swirling around this strange character with silver hair. There’s a warrant out for his arrest and nobody knows where he is—it was like something out of “The Bourne Identity.” It made him hugely famous. Which is, to some extent, exactly what he wanted. But then, he had a problem because over time there was no good ending to that story except going back to Sweden and he didn’t want to do that. So he surprised everyone by getting refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy. As they say, you can’t make this shit up!
“We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks” is playing in New York and Los Angeles. It will be released in other cities soon and will be available on demand on June 7. For more movie news, be sure to follow MSN Movies on Facebook and on Twitter.