We Steal Secrets, documentarian Alex Gibney’s examination of the rise and decline of WikiLeaks, which goes into wide release tomorrow, actually takes its title from an unexpected source, former CIA director Michael Hayden’s description of his own agency’s mission. Gibney tells the story of how Pvt. Bradley Manning decided to leak classified information on behalf of the public rather than a state, and how Julian Assange came to believe that publishing such information made him a world-historical figure as a hybrid biopic of the two men, interspersed with officials like Hayden other members of WikiLeaks. And it draws to a damning conclusion, arguing that WikiLeaks began as a decentralized publishing platform, and became co-opted as a tool to allow Assange to evade responsibility, not just for publishing classified information, but for other forms of misbehavior.
I spoke with Gibney about how Ennio Morricone’s scores inspired him, how he thinks Manning differs from the other figures in the film in his relationship to the internet—and to real-world consequences—and how he came to believe that the sexual assault charges filed against Assange in Sweden were not, as he’d initially thought, a set-up. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
I wanted to start out by asking you about some of the decisions you made in structuring the film. It seems like there are two stories you’re telling, the biographies and the larger institutional story. I was wondering how you decided to balance those elements, since obviously they intersect, but it leaves you with a lot of story to cover.
I mean, the key thing was following the WikiLeaks story. But the WikiLeaks story is not just Julian Assange, it’s Bradley Manning. And the hard part, then, was how to structure that story in time and space. Because obviously the chats all happen in a relatively short moment in time, but we wanted to be able to intersperse them, as well as the discovery of them throughout, to be able to jump back and forth between Bradley’s story and Julian’s story. So that was the toughtest thing that we had to do from the standpoint of filmmaking and storytelling.
The other stuff, the context, was stuff we just figured out ways of inserting when it seemed appropriate, at moments when it seemed right. And that’s the advantage of telling a story in chapters. You can stop, end a chapter, and start a new chapter. So you know, in order to understand this story, you have to understand a little bit about 9/11, and how security and information-sharing changed. But it’s the ability to find those moments where you come off of something like Michael Hayden saying “We know that at some point, there would be a leak, and if it was a leak, it would be a huge leak,” and then we cut hard t and you see this chat come up, and you don’t know who the chat is from, and it just says “I’m an intel analyst in Iraq” and you go “Oh, what’s that?” The idea was keeping the mystery story going.
One of the things that I also thought was striking—and I’d know more about Manning’s backstory than Assange’s childhood—I wondered if there was information and reporting about both of their backstories that you wish you’d been able to get into the movie. Obviously Manning grew up with both sexual identity and gender identity issues, and you mention Assange’s sort of displaced childhood briefly.
Yeah, I mean, we had a much longer section about Assange’s childhood in the three hour and thirty minute cut, which we all had to sit through. And it is interesting. We actually went to Magnetic Island, where Assange grew up in part. It’s a small island off the coast of Queensland, near a town named Townsville. It’s called Magnetic Island, in this beautiful kind of metaphorical issue, because when Captain Cook sailed by, he claimed it fouled his compasses. So there’s Julian Assange from Magnetic Island, fouling the compasses of the most powerful military machine on earth. So it was pretty good. And we had aspects of his childhood and the sense that he was moving from place to place constantly.