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Alex Gibney makes interesting documentaries, he finds good stories within a bunch of facts that may by themselves not appear too thrilling. He is (at least to me) not a “celebrity documentary director” in the reigns of Errol Morris or Werner Herzog, but maybe that is a good thing. I liked “Enron” not too much (because of its subject matter, mainly) and “Taxi to the Dark Side” quite a bit more (again, because of the subject matter).

In most cases there is very little that would suggest there is a cinematic story to tell, but he manages to balance talking heads and background footage in a way that is often compelling.

Same here: So some guys set up a website that allows for anonymous whistleblowing (a triviality on a technological level), and a US soldiers decides to do just that. Not much to it, if not for the weird fact that the website somehow became the bad guy, whereas the person originally submitting the material (and given the nature of the Wikileaks platform, for a very long time this person would need to be called “unknown”) and the media editing and publishing it got quite a bit less attention. The film looks into the reasons for this, and finds them in the personality of Julian Assange. After watching the film, I am still not sure what opinion I should have on him, but maybe the closest to an opinion I have is “I don’t care about him”. I am surprised that his role in the whole story has managed to make him the centre of attention. And the film is to a large degree about explaining this surprising development.

Most people seeing this film or following the news reports will feel that he is hard to like on a personal level, but the odd thing is that there is no reason for his prominence and popularity. His bloated ego and increasing paranoia are not necessarily justified in terms of what he did or what he would have to fear. Had he been of a more humble and less self-important nature, it could well be that he would continue to be a happy hacker today, sitting alone with all his personal problems in some basement, feeding on pizza and sodas as these people are expected to be. By urging himself on a global centre stage, he somehow messed up the whole project, which could well have served as a role model for sensible and useful whistleblowing, with the moral choices  to be made by the whistleblowers and the media, not by some webmasters.

The way Wikileaks presented itself (mostly through Assange, sometimes in an odd and ill-coordinated tandem with his German co-founder) drew attention to what I would call a scapegoat: there is somebody who is somehow guilty and can be used to draw away attention from the content of the leaked documents, and from the question whether this should be made available to the public or not, and in which form, and by whom. This is quite rewarding for somebody who is paranoid anyway, and I am sure on some level Assange enjoyed the global witch hunt and the weird twists with rape accusations that in the end made him spend a good part of the last years in some Equadorian embassy in London. But the film is rather clear about the interpretation that all this rape story, framing or not, was only allowed to distract from the core of the matter because of the twisted personality that Assange appears to be.

That part about Assange is strangely detached from the part about Bradley Manning and his confidante, Adrian Lamo – as it needs to be, I think. There is a link, of course, but unfortunately for Manning it’s not a good one. Had Manning chosen any other platform, had he just sent the documents to media outlets, had he pushed over a manila envelope with a DVD under the door of an investigative journalist or left in on a park bench… his story would probably have had a more happy ending than the 35 years prison time that was his prize. Seems he did not trust the traditional media, so he chose Wikileaks, and he chose to leak it through the intermediation of an equally sexually confused online friend with sometimes clouded judgement.

I was wondering whether the repeated mention and elaboration on the issue of Manning’s sexuality was not excessive and speculative, I am still not sure whether this is really the most important aspect to the story of leaked documents, but director Gibney seems to believe that it is. And there are some arguments for it, as only through the very personal chats with Lamo did Manning finally get into the state of mind that made him transmit the documents.

I learned a lot of aspects about both Wikileaks and the Manning files that I did not know before. Maybe this is what kept me enthusiastic about the film. Had I known all the facts before (and I am sure many people who will see the film will have followed the news reports more enthusiastically than I did), I might have been put off a bit more by the focus on Manning’s sexuality, and maybe also by the sometimes a tad self-important use of computer graphics (sometimes illustrating a point, sometimes only mystifying Assange’s face…).

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