Too soon – ★★½
Alex Gibney is one of the most well-known documentary filmmakers out there so it was no surprise to see him taking on a big issue like Wikileaks in a studio documentary. For those of you who spent 2010 in a cave, Wikileaks was a website which revealed secrets about stuff like the US government, military and diplomatic services. The public face of the site was an Australian hacker named Julian Assange.
Gibney is no stranger to telling stories of corruption and shame within big organisations – Mea Maxima Culpa, ENRON: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Taxi to the Dark Side were damning indictments of the Catholic Church, a major energy corporation and the US Military respectively. His other recent work has seen him tackle subjects as varied as shamed New York politician Eliot Spitzer, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson and the concussion-fuelled life of an ice hockey enforcer. He has a prolific work ethic which sees him putting out two or three documentaries a year, almost all of them worthwhile. The problem with this take on Assange and the Wikileaks saga is that it feels incomplete and quite disjointed, primarily because the real world story is still evolving.
The film opens up by hailing Assange as a sort of freedom of information messiah who has broken down the walls of secrecy that surround the US Government. As the story evolves it becomes less and less about the old-fashioned source + journalists + platform operation that brought Wikileaks into the public consciousness and more and more about the scandals surrounding Assange that managed to shame the website in many’s people’s eyes. Once again for those of you missed 2010, when all this news was breaking, allegations against Assange also started to surface which alleged that he raped a Swedish girl. Whatever about the severity of the allegations – and it’s quite obvious they had sex, the big questions are over details and its consensuality – a huge cloud starts to form over the white-haired Aussie as he opts for diplomatic immunity of staying holed up in the UK and eventual security of the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he still resides today. Over the course of the film’s two-hour run-time you never really feel like you’re learning all that much that you didn’t already know, and despite interviews with key allies, journalists and colleagues Assange stills feels quite elusive. It’s to Gibney’s credit that he is neither exalted nor vilified though it would have been nice to feel like we’d gotten to know the man who has dominated headlines for so long.
The real star of the film is undoubtedly the original whistleblower who fed Wikileaks the info that made them famous – Army Private first class Bradley Manning. He was the one who risked everything to share 700,000 documents which he felt highlighted the callous behaviour of the US military during the War on Terror. Animated transcripts of his online chats from the military base he was stationed at reveal a troubled soul who feels like a square peg in a round hole, with no friends or allies around him. There are massive moral questions over whether he did the right thing and the US vs. Bradley Manning trial that is happening right now reveal that whether the authorities chose to acknowledge it or not, his actions changed military culture forever. We learn a little about Manning and his moving struggle with gender labels and identity but again Gibney doesn’t go in quite far enough. There is a stark contrast in the way we see Assange and Manning by the end of the film and it’s to Gibney’s credit that such clear lines have been managed to emerge.
Another example of just how timely this story is comes when you consider the case of Edward Snowden and the NSA leaks that are currently dominating headlines. His story is now inextricably linked to Wikileaks and Gibney would surely be adding Snowden’s story and search for exile to the film if he were starting over now. This feeling of a finger off the pulse permeates through the film as the story behind Wikileaks, Assange and Manning is incomplete and it’s going to take years before we have the perspective, hindsight and knowledge to know just how we should be seeing this whole saga. In the meantime we can at least look forward to the incomparable Benedict Cumberbatch as Assange in The Fifth Estate which is due out later this year.
Released in Ireland on July 12th 2013 at Dublin’s Lighthouse Cinema and Irish Film Institute.