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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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage