Monday, January 27, 2014

Film Review: We Steal Secrets (2013)

We Steal Secrets

At its heart, We Steal Secrets is a story about stories.  The stories that we tell ourselves and the stories that we are told by authority figures.  The two men that are at the heart of these stories are both defiant and reactionary and both are trying to reveal an uncomfortable truth about the world they live in: One about the government and one about the military.

In 1991, Julian Assange was arrested in Australia for hacking a Canadian telecommunications company.  He eventually moved to Europe and founded the website Wikileaks, which had revolution as its mission statement.  At first he presented the idea that the site was populated with dedicated recruits that were organized and had their fingerprints all over the digital world, yet it was really just Julian working solo with a handful of mobile phones and IP addresses.

The unique selling point of the site was that it allowed users to dump unedited private data into the public domain with complete anonymity.  The software was designed to attract corporate, government and military whistleblowers to give information to a protected electronic forum, which could then be disseminated worldwide in order to encourage radical reform of corrupt institutions. Assange always believed that the truth would set us free.

Meanwhile a young and adrift man from Oklahoma called Bradley Manning decided that the best way to escape his bullying was to join the army.  He was an apparently unhappy teenager who began to spend a lot of time with his computer, believing that it was to become his vocation.  Little did he know that his love for computers would seal his fate and lead him to be the most prolific public enemy of the USA since Osama Bin Laden.

Assigned as a data analyst in Iraq, he had access to two databases called SIPRNet (the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network) and JWICS (the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System).  As he began to believe that more and more of the militaries actions were immoral, he decided to take action.  The film spends a lot of time challenging the mainstream media’s narrative of his motivations, as he clearly agonized about the decision and spent a lot of time talking online to friends about the consequences of his actions.  Yet the apparent tipping point was a now infamous video of an American military helicopter firing indiscriminately on Iraqi citizens with a voiceover of a soldier clearly enjoying himself.  The video came to represent everything that critics of the war feared the most: that the American occupiers were becoming detached and sadistic concerning the people that they had gone to war to protect.

Another video showed military weapons being used to inadvertently kill Iraqi civilians (sorry, “insurgents”) and their children, with a soldier commenting that it was “their fault for bringing kids to a battle” – the whole country had become a battleground and everyone was becoming ‘fair game’.

The documentary attempts to work as both a history of the period, and as an insight into the motivations of the main protagonists.  Assange is framed as an angry ‘humanitarain anarchist’ with a radical transparency agenda constructed from years of Internet hacktivism; and Manning is framed as an uncomfortable gay egalitarian who refuses to stomach the actions of an military that no longer represents him.  It is unfortunate that his homosexuality is offered as a deciding factor in his ideology, especially since after his arrest he has redefined himself as Chelsea Manning hoping to one day get reassignment surgery.  This has been jumped upon by American opponents and is dwelled upon for a large part of the film – unintentionally reinforcing the stereotype that homosexual men are threatening and dangerous…

Nevertheless the film is a damning indictment of abuses by American power – both soft power like intelligence services and hard power like the military.  It is quite incredible to think that modern America’s biggest enemies are middle class techno nerds with names like Bradley, Julian and Edward.

Although denounced by Assange himself, he must appreciate the provocative title of this film.  Working both as an attention-grabbing misnomer as well as a summation of the arguments of his critics, it sounds like the kind of irreverent and supercilious sound bite that Assange would champion.  And I mean that in a positive way…

For the Benedict Cumberbatch biopic of Julian Assange - click here

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