On the one hand, the individual mind registers and is very much aware of the collective whole, context, or situation in which it finds itself. On the other hand, it is precisely because of this awareness — a worldly self-situating, a sensitive response to the dominant culture — that the individual consciousness is not naturally and easily a mere child of the culture, but a historical and social actor in it. - Edward Said, The World the Text and the Critic
As I write this, the media is unleashing its voyeuristic obsession on the whereabouts of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. I cannot help but indulge the connection between the media selling cheap curiosity to the public and the way in which the documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks (2013) has been shaped for the same purpose. The film is directed by Alex Gibney, an insanely prolific producer and director whose work ranges from Freakonomics to Gonzo, all the way to The Sexual Century and even to hockey in Last Gladiators. It seems there is no topic he does not cosy up with - he has an average of four films a year! In his latest film on Wikileaks he makes love (for 130 minutes) with the idea of a hyper-contemporary approach to documentary films in which content is only a fraction of the experience. Here, what counts is producing a narrative that relies on creating eventfulness at all costs, bending the audiovisual language and letting it fill the gaps of content. This approach cannot hold together a documentary that tries to tackle a complex topic such as Wikileaks and the repercussions of its work. Gibney is more interested in giving his film a blockbuster feel and exploiting the popularity of the topic, rather than sincerely portraying crucial political and philosophical issues - from the rising of a new ontology of knowledge to finding and questioning the new socio-political basis for the concept of “security.”
The film relies entirely on stock footage as the filmmaker was not granted interviews with anybody at Wikileaks, let alone its founder, Julian Assange. The documentary is shaped around a double biographical narrative of Assange and Bradley Manning, the US army whistleblower. While nursing a soft spot for Manning, Gibney is clearly interested in sensationalizing Assange’s supposed love for himself rather than offering a multilayered portrait, a task that any serious documentary would prioritize.
Gibney instead simplifies the dynamic: Manning, a tormented soul lost in the immensity of what he knows, and Assange, the great puppeteer, who, in the director’s depiction, seems to get a kick out of the power of knowing as opposed to the importance of it. Through bits and pieces of archival footage, the documentary turns Assange into a sort of silly egocentric figure who slowly and childishly sinks into the pleasures of attention. This is the exact moment when Gibney derails the documentary. The director is overtaken by the Hollywood love for easy-to-digest biopics that create a vacuum of real socio-political content.
In exploring Assange and Manning, the director leaves crucial questions unanswered - the role of individual consciousness versus collective consciousness should have been central - in favor of barely scratching the surface of Manning’s depression or Assange’s narcissism. This is when one doubts the director’s sympathy and understanding of Manning’s gender identity crisis. In fact, as the film progresses, it becomes clear how this element is narratively crucial to the biopic feel, and functional in pushing away from a serious political engagement.
Halfway into the film, we clearly realize that the director has led himself to a dead end. By banalizing the subject matter, Gibney shifts the attention of the viewers from debatable facts to gossip. If this was intentional, he certainly succeeded. The mainstream critics, probably tired after the visual marathon, seem to go for it. The Hollywood Reporter: “Prolific documentary-maker Alex Gibney delivers a gripping account of the wins and losses of hard-charging idealism on the frontlines of the information wars in We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks. Exhaustively researched and balanced in its view of the controversial key player.” Really? No, wait, I mean, really? The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Steven Rea: “A real-life cyber-thriller with real-life consequences, Alex Gibney's We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks is a riveting and revelatory documentary.” Indeed, the film does it: The documentary becomes “a thriller" - what counts is the trick, with the audiovisual wizardly making us forget about the content.
The documentary is also an exercise in the flexing of style muscles. The whole story is punched up with the sense of urgency that reminds us more of a Hollywood blockbuster about, say, zombies, than a thoughtful journey to unlock a complex story - an unsettling urgency that dissipates as soon as the end titles start to roll. We are led into a grande bouffe, a blowout of rhythm and expectation. Literally, we watch and wait for the next piece of information to hit us. In spite of its full 130 minutes, the film, at best, gives us vignettes of the many issues that an organization like Wikileaks raises: from the admixture of secrecy and security to basic questions of freedom of speech. As we watch, we keep putting those bites of information aside, waiting for the mosaic to give us a sense of the objective socio-political shift that Wikileaks brought about. But instead we are left with a bellyfull of irrelevant fragments. One cannot help but wonder who is really complacent in his ego trip: Gibney’s Assange or Gibney himself?
So we now have a documentary that, it turns out, is not “The Story of Wikileaks,” as the title quite arrogantly states (it is clearly Gibney’s intention to own the subject matter), but more a highbrow vs. lowbrow dynamic in which the director gives Manning a nod while turning down Assange. The film offers a confused investigation, and one cannot help but wonder how deep a filmmaker can go if he makes four films a year. The last four? On pedophilia, on bioluminescent sea creatures (!), on power and money on Park Avenue, and on Wikileaks. As I write, Gibney has two documentaries in postproduction - one on Lance Armstrong and the other on Fela Kuti. Wow.
One can only dream of a Wikileaks documentary that would go to the root of what the phenomenon means. But if producers lost the courage to represent this, at least one would hope that some meaning would be allowed. Unavoidably, we are forced to give in to the idea that “a ride does not require an explanation but just occupancy”.(1)
(1) A quotation from the film Waking Life (2001) directed by Richard Linklater.