“We steal secrets” – that it’s the ex-CIA man who says that – and not the Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is one of the first of many surprises throughout this drama-documentary.
Julian Assange probably thinks this film is about him. But it is not. It’s a film about war crimes, and that particular packet of human frailties that we call Asperger’s Syndrome.
Of course, Assange gets the Hollywood matinee-idol treatment, whether he is suited and booted under the spotlight or feeding the chickens at the eighteenth-century mansion that was his safe house for a while. “He was the new Mick Jagger” claims a Swedish supporter. But we have seen footage of Julian Dad-dancing at the Stockholm disco and we suspect that this supporter’s tongue is firmly in his cheek. This suspicion is confirmed when he narrates that the two Wikileaks women who had sex with Assange only started complaining about the experience when they realised that he had had one-night stands with both of them. Their ground for complaint was that in Anna’s case, he is alleged to have broken the condom, and in Sophia’s case he did not use one. Like a line from a James Bond script, her testimony says “He had already entered me and I asked ‘Are you wearing anything?’ ‘You!’ ” he replied. Clearly, Assange believes he is a hero or at least a man playing a role that destiny designed for him.
The true hero, US Army Special Private Bradley Manning, has no such self-assurance. Small, gay and effeminate, he endures the macho culture of the barracks near Baghdad. Manning is lonely and unhappy. He tries to persuade his commanding officer that he needs to start hormone therapy so that he can re-assign his gender to become the woman he should be. On leave he dresses as a woman, and feels comfortable. His job as an intelligence officer reveals many atrocities and injustices which enrage him. Yet he is powerless to stop them, to defend innocent civilians against his ignorant superiors. His supervisor recalls ‘The intel there was pretty good. But a lot of the time it was actually in Iraqi (sic) so you’d have to get it translated.’ Thwarted, disarmed and sent to work in the mail room, Bradley Manning finds a way to tell the world of the war crimes he has discovered in the classfied military documents he can access. His motivation, according to his emails “i was actively engaged in something I was completely against. im a broken soul. i..care?”
He found Wikileaks.
And the transparency website was true to its founder’s word. It accepted his secrets, encrypted and published them without revealing their source. Then convicted hacker Adrian Lomo got involved. Is he a CIA stooge? Did he really feel sorry for bradass87 ? A young man with a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome, Lomo – like Assange and Manning – is playing a part that will bring him fame and lift him out of his isolation and obscurity. All three gifted computer experts seem equally capable of tantrums, amoral behaviour and a convenient attitude to truth. They are playing themselves, in a script they have written. When Julian Assange gets the Guardian, New York Times and Der Spiegel newspapers to publish the wikileaked truth about Iraq and Afghanistan he can see no reason to redact the names of people who would get killed if they were exposed as collaborators, and cannot understand why the journalists insist on this self-censorship. His refusal to act means there is physically not enough time to remove all the names before the documents appear in the newspapers and on the websites. Likewise when faced with charges of sexual assault from his two Swedish lovers he simply refuses to accept the accusations, with a single-mindedness that may indicate an autistic spectrum condition.
In the movie’s most powerful scenes, grainy footage shot from an Apache attack-helicopter shows unarmed civilians and two Reuters journalists being shot dead, with the gunner and pilot chatting excitedly as though it is a computer game.
Elsewhere the computer-based nature of the story stifles it. Since Tim Berners-Lee first logged on to the internet, film and TV makers have struggled to depict the awesomeness of global connectivity, and these film-makers are no exception. Even the melodramatic inclusion of a clip from Star Trek fails to lift the tedium of cobwebby laser-beams and satellite pictures of the earth from space, interspersed with white-on-black newspaper facsimiles. The TV news footage is handled more adroitly, and there is some slick editing in the montage of yelping rednecks on Fox News, calling for ‘an assassin’ ‘a hit squad’ ‘a drone‘ to ‘take out‘ Assange. Subtle camerawork depicts the hacktivist’s followers as rockstar groupies or sheep with white cut-out masks of his face – although to be fair to the protesters they are not marching or mounting DdoS cyber attacks out of hero-worship for a flawed leader. Rather they are reacting to the leaks in what interviewee Heather Brooke calls ‘the Wizard of Oz moment‘ when the little dog pulls away the curtain and we can see what our political leaders are really doing.Talking heads including some remarkably frank armchair generals and former spooks add some welcome gravitas.
A clear message from the movie is that the US authorities exploited the extraordinary characters of Julsian Assange and Bradley Manning to make this a personal issue, using propoganda to deflect attention away from the respectable newspaper reporting of grisy revelations of wrongdoing by the US military. The Guardian journalist Nick Davies and his boy-wonder sidekick James Ball may convince us that it was all worthwhile – that they were able to speak truth to power and to expose torture, death squads, rape and murder in the name of war – thanks to Wikileaks. Certainly they seem to believe it.
Julian Assange, locked in the Ecuadorian embassy, and Bradley Manning, on trial and on suicide watch in solitary confinement, are paying a high price for those stolen secrets. And although the film has a schmaltzy finale with a 1950s love song, the story is not over yet and a happy ending is most unlikely. Watch this space…
Watch the trailer (starts with Man of Steel advert) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WUjA_hcYzzI