Director Alex Gibney at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills. (Ricardo DeAratanha, Los…)
When director Alex Gibney began work on his documentary "We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks," he thought he would be telling the story of a charismatic, silver-haired free speech advocate named Julian Assange, who had exposed dark corners of powerful governments and corporations using little more than his laptop.
Instead, as he began to investigate, Gibney found himself crafting a digital age Icarus tale, in which the WikiLeaks founder's idealism and ambition were metastasizing into hubris, and his organization's greatest achievements rested on the shoulders of a lonely young Army private named Bradley Manning.
FOR THE RECORD:
"Wiki-Leaks": A May 19 article about the documentary "We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks" identified producer Marc Shmuger as a former Universal Pictures co-chairman. He was chairman. —
In portraying the battle between WikiLeaks — Assange's group, which publishes classified information supplied by anonymous sources — and its chief adversary, the U.S. government, Gibney delivers a movie about government transparency in the Internet era, an especially resonant topic in a month when it was revealed that the Justice Department secretly gathered the phone records of Associated Press journalists and the IRS targeted tea party groups.
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The movie, which opens May 24 in Los Angeles and New York, is also timely for another reason — it provides the most intimate portrait yet of Manning, whose court-martial for allegedly providing WikiLeaks with hundreds of thousands of classified documents is set to begin June 3 at Maryland's Fort Meade.
"I thought this film was about a leaking machine, this new technology, and I thought it was about this silver surfer character Julian Assange, who had this great David and Goliath story," Gibney said over coffee last month. "But in some ways it's a reflection of how important it is to constantly be examining what is true and what is not."
Producer Marc Shmuger, a former Universal Pictures chairman, originally brought the idea of making a WikiLeaks movie to Gibney, who won an Oscar for his 2007 Afghan war documentary "Taxi to the Dark Side," and has developed a kind of micro-niche of movies about the downfall of arrogant men and institutions — he directed "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," about the bankrupted energy company; "Casino Jack and the United States of Money," about corrupt Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff; "Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer," about the prostitution scandal that felled the New York governor; and "Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God," about the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. This fall, his documentary about Lance Armstrong is due.
"Assange, from the first time I was exposed to him, just seemed like the most fascinating subject and the kind Alex does a tremendous job in his films exploring — subjects that are textured and morally complex and compelling," Shmuger said. "You're both drawn to him and repulsed by him simultaneously."
Gibney and Shmuger weren't the only filmmakers drawn to Assange; when they started on the documentary, three narrative movies about the Australian computer hacker were in various stages of development. Since then, only one has gone forward, director Bill Condon's "The Fifth Estate," which stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Assange and arrives in theaters in November.
Gibney penetrated the dense circle of agents, lawyers and journalists who surrounded Assange with the help of one of his film's executive producers, activist Jemima Khan, who had posted some of Assange's bail in a case involving allegations of sexual abuse by two Swedish women.
After months of discussions about Assange's possible participation in his film, Gibney flew to England, where his subject was living under house arrest in a country estate, for a six-hour meeting. According to Gibney, at that meeting Assange told him the going rate for an interview was $1 million. When Gibney said he didn't pay for interviews, Assange asked if instead the director would tell him what others interviewed in the documentary were saying.
"He didn't see the irony at all," said Gibney, 59, an unusually prolific filmmaker who often has multiple projects proceeding at the same time. "To him, he was ... being attacked by big and powerful forces and he should have the right to do whatever is necessary to protect himself. The idea that spying on other interview subjects would be ironic for a transparency organization didn't occur to him at all."
Assange declined to cooperate with Gibney, which led the director to mine other sources, including footage an Australian journalist shot of Assange before he was famous, and to find another story — Manning's.