December 30, 2013 -- This documentary about Wikileaks benefits from two fascinating, complicated men, Julian Assange and Bradley Manning (who now calls himself, or herself, or whatever, Chelsea). These two characters, now joined by Edward Snowden, have revealed huge amounts of previously secret information to the public.
The upshot of all this leaking does have its positive aspects. The public had a right to know some of these things. There are way too many secrets. The public has a right to know what war is really like for civilians in a war zone, that this nation has tortured people and that innocent people have been killed in our name by secret hit squads, accountable only to the president. This country cannot govern itself properly unless its citizens know what is going on.
On the other hand, these leaks have caused some damage and may have gotten some people killed because some documents were not properly redacted. This documentary makes it abundantly clear that Wikileaks did not have the manpower or expertise to properly evaluate, understand and edit the information it released. These people are not journalists, they are hackers. The responsible release of hundreds of thousands of documents containing the names of unprotected informants requires a lot of manpower and expertise which Wikileaks did not have.
The documentary raises another valid point in this regard. Why did the U.S. government go after Assange and Manning, but did not go after the New York Times, the Guardian, and other newspapers and news organizations that leaked some of this same information? If Manning is a traitor and Assange is a terrorist, as some in the government have claimed, then what does that make the New York Times, who actively collaborated with Assange? Maybe it is because Assange and Manning can't afford big, expensive law firms to defend them, like media organizations can.
While the documentary delves into these, and many other issues, the focus is on Assange and Manning, who are absolutely fascinating characters. Manning is depicted as a loner with a lot of sexual identity issues. He is depicted as being very unhappy in the military and very isolated. He has no one to confide in. He reaches out to Wikileaks, which doesn't even want to know who he is, and to another computer hacker, who very reluctantly turned him in.
The treatment of Manning, particularly solitary confinement (which can destabilize anyone) sleep deprivation, exposure to cold, making him go without clothing, holding him for years outside the military court system is sharply questioned in the film. It certainly doesn't make us look good as a country, and it doesn't reflect well on President Obama as its commander in chief.
Assange comes across as a man who got in over his head. Neither he, nor his tiny organization were able to cope with the vast amounts of information given him by Manning. Assange appears to have assumed that his sources would remain confidential. When Manning became known as his source, he was clearly angry about it and was unprepared to deal with the consequences of this revelation. He was also unable to cope with being one of the most famous people in the world, the focus of attention by the world's media and by the world's governments as well. Assange has a curiously blank, passive-looking face, like there is something missing inside.
The whole issue of the rape charges against Assange in Sweden is explored in some depth. One of the women accusing him of sabotaging a condom and possibly exposing her to disease is interviewed in the film. The obvious conclusion I jumped to, as did many others, is that Assange was set up by these women, but the woman, and others in the film indicate this is a much more complicated situation than it seems. It may have been rather a minor incident blown out of proportion because of Assange's rock star status at the time.
My impression about this incident from this film is that the accusations against Assange probably could have been handled quietly and without much fuss. The whole thing turned into an international incident because Assange refused to be tested for AIDS. Assange probably refused to return to Sweden to face charges because of his paranoia and because of his decision to use the incident to help him raise money.
While Assange did not agree to participate in this documentary, he is given lots of time on screen in footage of interviews he gave news organizations, speeches he gave, and things he wrote. Daniel Domscheit-Berg and Joseph Farrell, close associates of Assange, both appear in the film. Farrell is a defender of Assange, recently blasting Jemima Khan's anti-Assange news article. Kahn is also a former defender of Assange and is an executive producer of this movie.
The film features many other knowledgeable people in interviews, some of them quite entertaining. There is also footage from the helicopter attack in Iraq that killed two newsmen, one of Wikileaks most famous disclosures. This is a very controversial film because it shows Assange to be somewhat less than the Messiah his followers think he is. As far as I can tell this film is pretty fair and evenly balanced. It shows Assange and Manning to be complex people who don't fit simple categories. What they did, and continue to do, doesn't fit simple explanations, either.
Director Alex Gibney didn't get any flak from liberals for his earlier films, “Taxi to the Dark Side” and “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” because he was telling them what they wanted to hear. Now that he is suggesting that Assange may not be the hero he is thought to be, he is getting a lot of flak. I'm a journalist. I think Gibney is one too. I'm a lot more inclined to believe Gibney than Assange, or his followers, regarding the fairness of this film. This film rates an A.
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