What ‘We Steal Secrets’ leaves out

This review was first posted here on May 24, 2013

Alex Gibney’s “We Steal Secrets” chronicles WikiLeaks’ front-page, world-shocking 2010 leaks from inception to publication to aftermath, framing WikiLeaks’ work as a meteoric rise giving way to a self-incurred implosion.

While I find fault with this view, and even its premise that WikiLeaks has failed and died (the site continues to publish Stratfor emails and Kissinger files, it just won an important Icelandic victory to resume accepting donations through Visa interlocutors, and the Freedom of the Press foundation continues to funnel anonymous contributions its way), I’d rather let others dissect its portrayal of Assange and WikiLeaks and instead focus on how it characterizes Bradley Manning. (Read WikiLeaks’ annotated copy of the film’s script here.)

Earlier this year, we took issue with some of director Alex Gibney’s comments associating whistleblowing with alienation, pathologizing Manning’s leaks and undermining his political values. Producer Sam Black emailed to assure us that, in fact, Bradley Manning is “a hero in the film. He is the moral and emotional center of a complex story about what should and should not be secret.”

Though the movie does laudably transition away from its opening focus on Julian Assange by reminding viewers that Manning is the courageous whistleblower who deserves at least as much public attention, Manning’s story only makes it into about a quarter of the two-hour film, which quotes journalists, former WikiLeaks members, high-ranking government officials, and fellow soldiers.

The time that is spent on Manning leaves much to be desired, and what it leaves out is as much to blame as what it includes. Ultimately, the resulting portrait of Bradley Manning is one of pity more than empathy, one that makes us feel bad for Manning rather than take a serious interest in his beliefs and his plight.

Near the end of the film, journalist James Ball says, “Whistleblowing is an isolating act,” because it forces one to make public things that your peers and friends want to keep secret. But the film’s portrayal reverses that succession, seeming to imply that whistleblowing follows from alienation, not the other way around.

The filmmakers could have avoided this pat and familiar narrative with mere patience: a few short months after production was finished, PFC Bradley Manning provided the most salient, film-ready testimony a director could want – his 10,000-word statement explaining his Army work and decision to release documents to WikiLeaks.

In that statement, Manning passionately articulates his reasoning:

I felt that we were risking so much for people that seemed unwilling to cooperate with us, leading to frustration and anger on both sides. I began to become depressed with the situation that we found ourselves increasingly mired in year after year. The [war logs] documented this in great detail and provide a context of what we were seeing on the ground.

He shines light on his mindset at the time and his political convictions:

I felt this sense of relief by [WikiLeaks] having [the information]. I felt I had accomplished something that allowed me to have a clear conscience based upon what I had seen and what I had read about and knew were happening in both Iraq and Afghanistan everyday.

He vividly conveys his revulsion:

The most alarming aspect of the video to me…was the seemly delightful bloodlust the Aerial Weapons Team seemed to have. They dehumanized the individuals they were engaging and seemed to not value human life, and referred to them as quote-unquote “dead bastards,” and congratulated each other on their ability to kill in large numbers….For me, this seemed similar to a child torturing ants with a magnifying glass.

Gibney couldn’t have necessarily known that such a statement was coming. But he would’ve been given this windfall of valuable audio had he not worked to release the film so early. The film is slated to premiere today. Bradley Manning’s trial will begin on June 3, in just over a week. If this were a civilian case, would the release of a major film about its defendant just days before his trial began appear unreasonable? Is Gibney trying too hard to get the story out there just in time for Manning to make the news again?

With the leaked audio published by the Freedom of the Press foundation, Gibney could have used those words above to take a holistic view of Manning while giving real credence to his political motivations. Instead, he relied on fellow soldiers’ memories and the infamous chat logs with Adrian Lamo.

Gibney did make some good use of those chat logs, highlighting a major turning point for Manning in the Army that many forget or minimize: his refusal to be complicit in the detention of innocuous Iraqi dissidents that he knew would be tortured and possibly killed. But beyond this incident, Gibney left us wanting for Manning’s observations and motivations. Why not include his comments on the first world exploiting the third, on almost criminal backroom deals?

The film simply focuses too much on Manning’s personality, and since it relies heavily on Adrian Lamo’s reflections and Manning’s fellow soldiers’ recollections, the remaining portrait is that of a gender-confused weirdo prone to outbursts. It affords extensive time to Jihrleah Showman, a government witness in Bradley’s Article 32 hearing in December 2011, to recount Manning’s emotional flare-ups, and at one point during her interview, Gibney leaves an unflattering photo of Manning up for 10 seconds. Is this really getting to the heart of what Manning’s case and struggle are about?

Gibney isn’t necessarily malicious: he doesn’t really blame Manning for his behavior, implying rather that he probably shouldn’t have been deployed to Iraq in the first place. The view is not one of scorn, but one of pity. In so doing, Gibney subtly removes Manning’s agency, characterizing him more as honorable victim than brave whistleblower.

In one portion, Gibney wonders why Manning’s chain of command wasn’t reprimanded further for allowing him to release these classified documents so easily. Why not take them to equal task for telling him to shut up when he brought Iraqi corruption to their attention? Why not take the government to further task for failing to prosecute the criminals that Manning exposed? Gibney only hints at these questions where a deeper exploration is desperately needed.

The problem isn’t that ‘We Steal Secrets’ fails to cheerlead for Bradley Manning’s every move. It’s that it conflates nuance with the government’s emphasis on personal issues over political convictions.

Sitting behind Bradley in the courtroom for a year and a half, it’s obvious that he’s not interested in our pity, but certainly needs our support.

[Update: Alex Gibney responds to my review here.]

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What ‘We Steal Secrets’ leaves out

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