Filmmaker Alex Gibney on "Noble Liar" Julian Assange, and Why Bradley Manning is the Real Hero of WikiLeaks

Alex Gibney’s new documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, opens in Washington today at the AFI Silver. In a review last month, I wrote that most struck me about the film is how Army Pfc. Bradley Manning emerges as the surprising hero, since the story of WikiLeaks is generally most associated with its flamboyant founder, the Australian hacker Julian Assange. It turns out this was a surprise for Gibney, too. 

I met Gibney last week while he was in town promoting the movie, and he explained that when he began research for the film, he assumed it would largely be about Assange and the rise of an organization dedicated to exposing government secrets and holding officials accountable. Gibney had watched WikiLeaks’ “Collateral Murder” video, which shows a US helicopter firing on a group of people that the pilot believes are Iraqi insurgents, but who were actually unarmed civilians and journalists. 

“It was biased, but I was ok with that,” Gibney said. “Because [Assange] also presented the full video” in addition to edited clips and captions, along with the provocative title. Gibney had never met Assange, but he saw him as a “classic whistleblower.” 

Gibney hoped Assange would give him access and sit down for on-camera interviews, just as disgraced New York Governor Eliot Spitzer had done for Gibney’s movie Client 9, about Spitzer’s procurement of prostitutes and the demise of his political career.  But according to Gibney, Assange wanted something in return for his cooperation–money. When Gibney refused to pay, he said, Assange asked whether he would reveal information that he’d gleaned from other sources, in effect spy on people who’d been talking about Assange. 

At this point, Gibney’s perception of his would-be leading man seems to have changed. “By the time I got on the story, [Assange] was incredibly famous,” Gibney said. “He was surrounded by lawyers, sycophants, and agents. He was used to people doing things for him.” 

In the film, Gibney uses Assange’s chosen hacker alias, Mendax, or “noble liar,” as a thematic touchstone. Gibney asserts that Assange wants to hold the powerful and corrupt to account, but he exempts himself from the same scrutiny. “He thinks the ends justify the means,” Gibney told me. As I wrote in my review, Assange’s story comes across as a cautionary tale about narcissism, and Gibney concludes that WikiLeaks has become the thing it set out to destroy: An autocratic regime that survives by cult of personality and secrecy. 

This helps explains how Manning came to be the pivotal figure in the film. Gibney came to see the young Army private not as Assange’s source, but as the key figure in WikiLeaks’ biggest publication, the disclosure of thousands of intelligence reports from combat zones and a trove of diplomatic cables. 

The credit for the biggest exposure of classified documents history, Gibney said, belongs to Manning, not Assange. “Really, the Wikileaks ‘war logs’ are the ‘Manning logs.” Without Manning, Assange never would have obtained the material that made him a global celebrity and dramatically enhanced WikiLeaks’ influence. 

Manning was a kind of “everyday hero,” Gibney said, but with motives that he calls “complicated” and “not pure.” 

“There was a huge component of political consciousness” to what Manning did, Gibney said. Manning’s state of mind when he gave the information to WikiLeaks, as well as his intentions, are key factors that will help decide how severely he is punished. 

Manning has already pleaded guilty to a number of charges. His court-martial for the remaining alleged offenses is set to begin June 3. 

“I hope the movie will make [him] more sympathetic,” Gibney said.