Alex Gibney's latest film is called We Steal Secrets, and it couldn't be arriving in cinemas at a more appropriate time. As Edward Snowden remains on the run from the US government, the questions raised about government surveillance and public privacy in Gibney's film feel strikingly pertinent. We Steal Secrets tells the story of WikiLeaks through the rise and fall of Julian Assange and the moving case of Bradley Manning, and Gibney finds a compelling path through this complex material with typical intelligence and skill. It's another excellent documentary from one of the most consistent and prolific filmmakers working today, and I met Alex Gibney recently to discuss it.
Ever since We Steal Secrets was first screened it seems you've been coming under attack from WikiLeaks and Assange loyalists. What has that been like for you? Were you prepared for such a backlash?
I guess I should have been prepared for it because I'd seen it. In fact, when I visited Julian and had this extended 6-hour negotiation, he was busy preparing this long letter attacking a Channel 4 documentary. What I wasn't quite prepared for was the piling on from people who desperately need Julian to be a kind of pure, unalloyed hero, and therefore any criticism of Julian is seen as an attack on the ideals of transparency. I think Julian likes to put himself in that position and one of the things that the film is about is that we shouldn't allow Julian to put himself in that position. You know, nobody's perfect, certainly not Julian, and we shouldn't mistake the man with the mission.
I think the film shows both his virtues and his flaws.
Right, I agree with that, and that's the other thing. The criticism doesn't engage with the fact that a lot of the film is a pretty romantic vision of him.
So does the film reflect how your own perception of Julian altered, because you were making it as these events unfolded in real time?
I was making it in real time and my perception changed, but we decided to integrate my change of perception into the context of the film. There are somewhat unsavoury aspects to Julian's character that you see early in the film that then come back to haunt us later. It's clear as a result of his legal case in Australia that he doesn't like to be held to account. The policeman who interrogated him said he always felt he was a martyr, that he never liked to accept responsibility for what he had done. He hates being held to account even though he loves holding other people to account. Well, later on I think that becomes a real problem for him. When the Swedish episode crops up I think that becomes an opportunity to look at how his unwillingness to be held to account becomes a kind of perversion of the very ideals of the organisation.
I guess the irony is that WikiLeaks would never have achieved such status without someone like him at the helm, but it was his status that was eventually its undoing.
I agree with that, Daniel Domscheit-Berg for one would ever have been the kind of charismatic figure to attract all of this attention to WikiLeaks. When Julian is sitting in a makeup chair in the film and he says "The organisation has to have a face, I wish it didn't have to have a face" – I'm not sure I believe that last statement, by the way – I do sense there was a problem there. He needed to present a face, he was a good one, he attracted a lot of attention and interest, but over time I think Julian began to assume that he and the principles of WikiLeaks were one and the same. Therefore, if you attack him for whatever reason you are attacking the principles of WikiLeaks.
In the film we see your unsuccessful attempts to get an interview with him, but in hindsight do you think the film is stronger because of this failure? Perhaps an interview with him might have dominated the story too much?
I don't know if he would have dominated it too much, but I think by the time I came upon Julian Assange, which was after he had become hugely famous, he had become very much a celebrity and he was presenting a kind of celebrity face to the world. Now, there may be others who can capture a more intimate version of Julian Assange, but I'm afraid he was at that time a pamphleteer, a propagandist, and he was not interested in showing any kind of insight into his own thinking or his story. I fear, based on my meetings with him, that the interview would have been long, ponderous and speechy.
I guess the lack of an interview with Assange also gave you the opportunity to shift the focus from him to Bradley Manning.
Well that to me was the big bonus, and I think that's why the film did become better. By not having Assange's interview, Bradley Manning emerged, and Bradley Manning really is the hero of the film, not Assange.
I think a lot of people who go to the film for Julian Assange will come away from it thinking about Bradley Manning.
Correct, I hope that's right.
There's a surprising emotional impact from watching his text conversations with Adrian Lamo unfold on screen.
This was the biggest leap of faith we made creatively in the film. We wondered at the beginning, how do we represent Bradley Manning's chats? Initially we thought we had better get an actor to read them, because that's the only way it could be successful, but then we thought that was wrong, it was dead wrong. What was so essential about those chats is the way that information was conveyed, i.e. via text. It was someone sitting alone in a room, texting somebody they don't even know, and sharing their most intimate personal details with them. We felt that we should embrace that, and luckily we were working with this company Framestore – you know, they did the special effects for Harry Potter and so many other things – and we said, please take this journey with us and let's keep discussing how to present this stuff. Those chats in particular ended up being the simplest things but actually they were the most complicated thing to render. We just couldn't get them right, in the rough cut they were just white text on a black screen, but we wanted something that conveyed the idea that you were inside in the internet, and to be both digital and human at the same time. They came up with a process that was at once digital and analogue, they photographed images from a TV set to give it an analogue quality in addition to the digital quality, and that's how we came up with what we ended up with. It's a subtle thing, but I think it's important.
It's a good time to be reminded of what an extraordinary story Bradley Manning's tale is. A troubled individual given access to all of these secrets, he's betrayed by Adrian Lamo, and now he's on trial where it seems they're going to hit him as hard as they can.
Right, it's unbelievable. They're trying to hit him as hard as they can and I think they're trying to hit him in a very reprehensible way. His lawyer did a rather brilliant thing, which is to plead guilty to the technical charges of leaking, because after all let's admit that Bradley Manning did break an oath in the military. He's a soldier who took an oath to protect these secrets and he leaked them. It's interesting that Manning – as opposed to Assange – is willing to be held to account, but he said don't hold me to account for spying, I'm not a spy. I didn't leak these materials for financial gain, I didn't leak them to a foreign power for some unique political advantage, I leaked them to the world because I want to make the world a better place. They're trying to say he's aiding the enemy and there will be a lot of testimony about how stuff he leaked ended up on Osama bin Laden's computer. Well, I'm sure a lot of articles from The New York Times and The Guardian ended up on Osama bin Laden's computer.
Do you think he's being used as an example to warn others what will happen if they cross the government in this way?
Yes, they're trying to do what the British Navy used to do – "Hoist the wretch," you know, hang him on the yardarm for the rest of the crew. I think they're also trying to divert attention from the lies that they're telling, but that I think will ultimately fail.
One part of the film deals with that, when it shows the US reaction to Julian Assange. They made the story all about him, saying he had "blood on his hands," etc. and that distracted from the content of what he leaked. Can you see a similar thing happening with Edward Snowden, where the story is now all about this young man on the run and people have stopped talking about what he exposed?
It's a tactic being repeated, but I think in the case of Julian Assange it's unfortunately a tactic that he helped the US government achieve. I think if he had been more conservative and a little bit more careful with redactions, the US government would have had a much harder time separating him out from The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel. So he made a mistake; they corrected it by the time of the Iraqi War Logs, but he made a mistake because that's what the government is always going to do. In the case of Snowden, in a way it's understandable from Snowden's perspective, he doesn't want to spend the rest of his life in jail and he assumes that things will not go well in an American courtroom. At the same time, one of the most admirable things about Snowden when he first came forward was that he said, "Actually, I'm not going to hide, it's ok to disclose who I am because I'm willing to face the music." Now, by being on the lam in the transit area of a Moscow airport, he has distracted in a way from the very things he was trying to expose.
The responsibility also lies with the media not to get distracted from the meat of the story.
Well, yeah, it does. This gets into the territory that I'm interested in, which is where people say we shouldn't follow personal stories and things should only be written about institutions – well, really? How many stories would we read if it was about "Citizen 5259B who said this," right? I think we're human beings and we're interested in human stories. The problem becomes when governments and those who sometimes oppose governments end up having to present duelling narratives, and it's all about who gets to tell the best story.
We Steal Secrets is a study of human nature in many ways.
Yes, it's about human nature but I would also like to say that We Steal Secrets is about human beings and it's about institutions. It's about both, and you can't do one without the other.
This idea of total openness and freedom of information that WikiLeaks was aiming for, do you think that's something feasible and attainable, or is it our human nature that will deny that?
I think it's human nature that we will always want to keep secrets, and it's also human nature that we will always want to leak them. It's all about the balance, and I think one of the reasons you're seeing so many leaks now is because things are out of balance. Governments and corporations are keeping far too many secrets. As a result, leakers are pressure valves allowing those secrets to pop up. If governments and corporations would keep fewer secrets then I suspect there would be fewer leaks.
The government wants to have it both ways, though. Revealing no secrets of its own while spying on its people.
Correct. The title of the film is We Steal Secrets, and that's said by Michael Hayden, the former head of the CIA and the NSA. It sets the whole story in context, because governments are guilty of stealing secrets all the time – and by the way, they're guilty of leaking secrets all the time. They do it, but they don't want citizens to do it. It gets to a territory of rough justice, that's what this world is about. Who has the moral high ground? Who can tell the better and compelling story?
Rather than being a film that originated with you, this project was pitched to you by Universal. Did that affect your process or the way you approached it in any way?
I was nervous about it initially, but one of the things they did – and they did it for a pretty good reason – was that they gave me final cut. They gave me final cut so I could go to anybody who participated in the film and said, "Guess what, by contract I have final cut. When you're talking to me you're not talking to Universal, you're talking to me." To their credit, that's what they did, and frankly they were great. They were not intrusive at all. Marc Shmuger as a producer was a fantastic creative force, helping to shape the story. There was no corporate agenda in that sense, they just wanted to tell a good story that would hopefully be compelling and people would watch.
I guess it must have been good to have the support of a major studio when the smear campaign started as well.
I guess so, but at the end of the day...you know, it's funny you should say smear campaign because of course Julian Assange accused everybody of running a smear campaign against him in the Swedish episode. But at the end of the day, fine. Run a smear campaign, go for it. It's all about dialogue. What has disappointed me about the smear campaign is that it's just that, it's a smear campaign. It's not much tethered to rational argument. It has as much to do with religious faith.
And much of it has come from people who haven't seen the film.
Yes, in many cases people haven't even seen the film. They've read the annotated transcript but the annotated transcript doesn't include any of Bradley Manning's words, so what is that? I read a recent review by Robert Manne, who is actually in the film, an Australian academic, he takes as gospel some of the things that Julian says in the annotated transcript. Look, it's all about trust at the end of the day, there's a lot of things that Julian says in the annotated transcript that is inaccurate. As a filmmaker, the other thing that kind of pisses me off about the annotated transcript is that people aren't seeing the movie, they're reading a transcript. I didn't make this to make a transcript, I made a film. Even filmmakers like John Pilger and Oliver Stone criticised the movie by reading a transcript. So the next time Oliver Stone makes JFK, should I just go and read the transcript?
That's the weird thing about it, because Oliver Stone went through a similar experience on JFK so surely if anyone is sympathetic to your situation it should be him.
I think his thought process is simple, which is Julian is good and the US government is bad, and anything that criticises Julian is bad.
When you take on these enormously complex, sprawling subjects, how do you find a clear narrative line? What's your way into a story?
One of the things that helps me is to come up with a kind of genre that will be applied in cinematic terms. Enron was a heist film, Taxi was a murder-mystery, and We Steal Secrets is a spy thriller. So that gives you a clue about how you're going to approach it. But at the end of the day, we had a three hour and thirty-minute cut on the first go-round, so you have to keep on shrinking the story in ways so, just like writing a screenplay, everything folds in on itself. Something you choose here about a character has to pay off later on, and you have to keep that in mind as you keep shrinking the story down, so you pay more attention to story and narrative than themes. At the same time, if you end up getting the story right, you can be pretty complicated around the edges, knowing that people are going to follow the story, and that allows for a lot of nuance, ambiguity and thematic detail that you otherwise wouldn't get.
We talked about how this story was unfolding as you made it, and it many ways it's still unfolding. How did you know when it was time to finish the film? Was it hard to let it go?
It was hard to let go but at the same time we recognised that things were going to go on and on and on. So the question was, at what point could we come to an end that felt satisfying in the context of our narrative? Once Julian entered the Ecuadorean Embassy we figured that was it. Now we had the two key protagonists both in prison and that seemed like a good place to end the story, so that's what we did.
Finally, I know you've been working on the Lance Armstrong film for a long time.
I understand that film is nearly finished, is that right?
We just locked reel four today. Sony Classics will release it and I think it will be in festivals in late summer, early fall. I'm proud of that one. I think it has turned out pretty well.
We Steal Secrets is released in UK cinemas on July 12th.