We Steal Secrets rightly restores Bradley Manning to the centre of the WikiLeaks story

Alex Gibney's WikiLeaks documentary rightly celebrates Bradley Manning, while at the same time providing plenty of ammo for Julian Assange's many critics.

We Steal Secrets: the Story of WikiLeaks (15)
dir: Alex Gibney

Until a few years ago, the description of a public figure as a “crazy, white-haired Aussie dude” would likely have called to mind Sir Les Patterson, the sozzled Australian cultural attaché created by Barry Humphries. In We Steal Secrets: the Story of WikiLeaks, the silver-maned nut job we are presented with is Julian Assange. Whether his personal conduct towards women gives him something else in common with Sir Les is one of several questions that Alex Gibney can only raise without any hope of answering conclusively.

It’s regrettable that Assange didn’t consent to an interview – or, at least, to one that wasn’t accompanied by a $1m price tag. On the whole, Gibney (who directed Enron and Taxi to the Dark Side, about the murder of an Afghan cab driver by US soldiers) has made the best of what he’s got. Most importantly, the picture restores to the centre of the narrative Private Bradley Manning, a genuine hero not at liberty to take advantage of the hospitality of the Ecuadorian embassy.

Gibney traces Assange’s subversiveness back to his involvement in the Wank Worm, which sounds like a subject for a post-watershed edition of Gardeners’ Question Time but is actually a virus (“Worms Against Nuclear Killers”) used by Australian hackers to destabilise Nasa computer systems in the late 1980s. For the film’s first hour, Assange is presented as quite the folk hero. He set up WikiLeaks as a confidential drop box for secrets requiring urgent disclosure; an early success for the site was its revelation about suspicious practices at Icelandic banks, which prompted riots by a people not renowned for their fury, Björk aside.

Entering the story stage left, burdened with secrets personal and governmental, is Manning, a guilt-ridden innocent who resembles a smudge of Angel Delight with acne. Among the classified videos he passes anonymously to WikiLeaks is one of a US air strike on Baghdad by whooping, adrenalised soldiers who appear to be under the impression that they’re playing Call of Duty. Eleven people died in that sustained attack, including a father driving his children to school and two members of Reuters staff whose cameras were mistaken for weapons.

While the reach of Assange and WikiLeaks is represented in the film by images of lines latticing the globe, Manning’s words are rendered entirely in a lonely ticker tape of computer type, the cursor blinking plaintively at the end of each line. (His username, bradass87, is touchingly aspirational in the special way that only usernames can be.) Asked by Adrian Lamo, the hacker to whom he reaches out and who ends up shopping him to the authorities, why he has turned whistle-blower, Manning types: “I . . . care?”

We Steal Secrets is correct to celebrate Manning. But it’s obvious from the roll call of interviewees, which includes a number of people who believe they’ve been wronged by Assange (such as his former partner-in-espionage Daniel Domscheit-Berg), that any bias will not be favourable to the WikiLeaks founder. Admittedly, he doesn’t help matters. From colossal errors (refusing to confront fully the allegations that he sexually assaulted two women) to trifling ones (there’s some unflattering footage of him bullishly contradicting Domscheit-Berg in public or disingenuously expressing a discomfort with being photographed), he has supplied much of the ammo for his character assassins.

What the film doesn’t convey is the possibility that only someone of Assange’s personality type could have engineered something as revolutionary as WikiLeaks (even if his approach to life-saving redactions in classified documents could be cavalier). Just as Assange’s misjudgements threaten to sully the good name of WikiLeaks, so it only takes a few indulgent flourishes by Gibney to shake our faith in his methods. A superfluous interlude reconstructing a night in the life of James Ball, a former WikiLeaks employee, suggests that Gibney harbours ambitions to make moody pop promos for Radiohead. And it can only weaken the movie’s charges against Assange to play in slow motion footage of him boogieing appallingly at a party. Impugn his integrity by all means. Savage his character. But don’t show the world his white man’s overbite and his dad-like dance moves.

Mystery man: Julian Assange emerges onto the balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times