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Alex Gibney on Hackers and Julian Assange

If Michael Moore is obsessed with outrage, and Herzog is obsessed with dreams, Gibney is a master of moments.

by Daniel Stuckey
May 22 2013, 1:00pm
Photo courtesy of Union Docs

"Awesome job... that thing you did with the Manning's text was so personal, it worked really well, great job," I overheard John Leguizamo tell Alex Gibney in the carpeted stairwell of the Tribeca Grand Hotel after a screening a couple weeks ago. Leguizamo was congratulating Gibney on his latest documentary, We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks. He was referring to a technique that Gibney used to moving and arresting effect inside his kaleidoscopic film: on-screen text to convey the chatroom conversations between Bradley Manning and his confidant Adrien Lamo. It manages to humanize Bradley Manning, who was not available for interviews, locked up as he is at Fort Leavanworth, awaiting trial next month.  

By some thematic coincidence, the last time I spotted Leguizamo was a few years ago, at an off-Broadway preview for Ethan Hawke's woodsy revamping of A Lie of the Mind, the Sam Shepard classic about the unraveling of familial dishonesties. It brought up some things worth thinking about. The human addiction to cortisol. The perverse satisfaction of digging up the secrets we know will harm and disappoint us.

Between collecting and leaking large bodies of classified military secrets, is Julian Assange's stubbornness to reveal his own shortcomings so hard to believe? He's a veteran hacker with anarchist aspirations. You don't have to be a bully like Nelson Muntz to dislike bleeding your own blood.

In his style of circular storytelling, Alex Gibney went to punch this paradigm straight in the face, in the first major documentary to come about Assange, Manning, and Wikileaks (there will be more, along with a fiction film). On Sunday afternoon, I had the opportunity to chat with Alex about the film. We only had brief moment to chat over the phone, but that was perfect, appropriate even. If Michael Moore is obsessed with outrage, and Herzog is obsessed with dreams, Gibney is a master of moments.

Motherboard: I was wondering about your father, the journalist Frank Gibney, and how he may have influenced you.

He was a great guy, always very curious, that’s what he taught me more than anything else. He stayed very curious until the end of his life. He was a great journalist, that was what motivated him. I think he had trouble with authority which I maybe also have. So for all those reasons, I think he was a big influence on me. I think he was also somebody that just was not willing to accept simple versions of events; he’d always go deeper.

Bradley wasn't available for an interview and Julian denied your request. Was lack of access the most challenging part of making this film?

I think telling the story was the most challenging part. Access was certainly challenging, I couldn’t speak to my two main characters, at least on camera. But sometimes that ends up paying unexpected dividends from a filmmaking perspective. As somebody famous [Da Vinci] once said, “Art is born from constraint and dies from freedom,” so, in this case, when it came to interview access, we had a lot of constraints.

It looks like you end up obtaining something much more personal through Bradley’s chats than you might have gotten out of a live visit.

Because it was Bradley speaking, those were Bradley’s words. I think to be able to show them as words, rather than speaking to him in some way was really important.

What role do you see hackers playing in society? Both Manning and Assange are portrayed as hackers, but maybe they're different types?

The term 'hacker' is so vague in general, it can refer to so many different things. It’s hard to know exactly how to respond to that. I think the big point is that we live in this world where simple mechanisms have a way of shutting down, and hiding, and concealing important facts. And when that happens, when too much is kept secret, by necessity individuals have to find ways to reveal that material. That I think is the bigger picture here.

It’s an ongoing struggle and I think the great thing about the computer age is that even as governments and corporations assume more power, interestingly, individuals armed with computers end up having quite a bit of power as well. That provides an important countervailing force.

I guess it reminds me of Style Wars, or vandalism like graffiti becoming art, and seeing what Assange has done as heroic.

That’s where the whole idea of the hacker, you have to define what you mean by hacker because there are a lot of different definitions. If you're talking about someone who maliciously goes into a computer and spies on individuals, or destroys valuable information, or commits theft of somebody else’s money; these are serious issues that we don’t approve of. That’s why I think it’s a balance, it’s a funny area we’re dealing with that’s why I call the film We Steal Secrets.

That’s the phrase that’s said by Michael Hayden, and he’s acknowledging, “We steal secrets,” from other governments. And what does he say, “We can’t do that above board if we’re going to be successful." In other words, we have to be secret to steal secrets, so don’t bother us. (Laughs) But he’s saying he’s stealing secrets. We say we don’t approve of theft, but when our government does it to other governments it’s okay because it’s protecting our national security. So it gets into murkier areas of what is moral. At certain moments in time it’s that balance, which is a judgment call.

So, when people are stealing secrets to protect us, what expectations do we have of them?

Right. Who’s watching the watchers?

I guess I never had the opportunity to feel so infuriated about Assange until I saw your film. Quite simply, what is the dude’s problem? What has it become?

I think the seeds of whom Assange has become today were always there: In his childhood, in the way he approached the world through the computer, in his kind of solitism, in the way he kind of took to himself and also imagined himself to always be a grander figure than he necessarily was, a kind of self-regarding narcissism. These were always there, but they were balanced with a healthy sense of idealism, and a self-deprecating humor. The Julian Assange that Mark Davis captured just before the Afghan War logs is a more interesting figure.

I think in the late scene, and through much of the more vicious attacks on Wikileaks, his character flew out of balance, and now he’s something that’s closer to a human megaphone. If you look at the Wikileaks' twitter page, I think there’s something like 1.5 million followers. And then look at how many people that site is following. Two. And they’re both Wikileaks sites, so, you know (laughs), that’s kind of a grand metaphor. Lots to say, but not much to listen. Not much patience for listening, not much bandwidth for listening.

"The Julian Assange that Mark Davis captured just before the Afghan War logs is a more interesting figure... his character flew out of balance, and now he’s something that’s closer to a human megaphone."

As a journalist, how are you concerned about the protection of other whistleblowers out there? Have you seen the New Yorker’s own version of Wikileaks, Strongbox?

I haven’t been there, but I know about it, and I know that it was designed by Aaron Swartz. And it’s important, an important development particularly in the wake of revelations about AP. But I don’t think that electrical drop boxes will end up being a panacea–that’s part of what the film is about.

When we start thinking about leaks, a lot of it is about personal relationships and trust. And there are opportunities but there are also problems with a technical fix. Who has dropped that material? And why? And what is it? Is it truthful or is it not? Is it misinformation as well as information? Again, these things can be checked, but it’s not a perfect system, or a perfect solution. But still it’d be a necessary step when the government is trying to essentially criminalize journalism.

I’ve tried in my own futile attempts to talk to Julian. I’ve phoned the Ecuadorian Embassy a couple dozen times, almost as a game, in the past year. I was wondering what you'd have asked, if you had been given the chance to speak with him, without paying the million dollar ransom on an interview?

I just wanted to take the true story, it was that simple. I wanted to take him through the story and have him tell it from his perspective, that’s all. That’s what I told him. I want to drill down, step by step, beat by beat, and have you tell your story. He wasn’t interested.

I wondered about how absurd, but maybe fun it could be to get that funded. To pay him for an interview.

But it’s not like an interview with him was so precious. He never asked for a million dollars, he just said that, “The market rate for an interview with me is a million dollars.” And I had to take a second to think, what market is that? The fact is that everybody interviewed him. I joked with him at one point and said, “I’m the only person in the world who has not interviewed you.” So, by virtue of inflation the market was pretty well saturated. Julian has had no shortage of people to talk to. But I think what the problem is now, is the information he conveys now.

It’s not self-reflective, it’s a series of pronouncements, it’s a series of mega-statements. He’s like a guy constantly giving a speech, in his Evita-like way, on the balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy. When you have a conversation with a politician you feel like “Is this a human being or a talking machine?” And I think that’s what Julian Assange has become. It’s bad, because I think that prior to being attacked and prior to being so famous, he was a more interesting person to talk to I suspect.

"He’s like a guy constantly giving a speech, in his Evita-like way, on the balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy."

You know, I’ve interviewed athletes, very famous athletes, and they’re always talking about themselves in the third person. And you’re looking around to see what other person is in the room.

So, would you rather talk to Steve Bartman or Julian Assange?

Ha! Probably Steve Bartman. I mean, I say that in joking. I’m very interested, I’ve tried very hard to talk to Julian is the point, all kidding aside. I think what all I’ve wanted is for him to tell his story in an honest way.

What do you think about the cyberpunk movement, and the idea of data encryption methods to keep information outside of and locked away from state power?

I think it’s increasingly important.

What do you think moving on from this film, how do you find your next story?

I’m always working on more than one project at once, and now I’m finishing another film on a completely different kind of subject. In some ways, in some ways similar, which is a film on Lance Armstrong.

In terms of stories that got away, are there any others that kill you that they got away?

I guess I don’t think of it that way. There are a lot of stories out there.

I guess I was thinking back to that ESPN journalist in Catching Hell, who foiled his chance of an interview with Steve Bartman in that parking garage, and how it torments him to this day.

There are always moments where you have a job to do, and part of your job can mean digging into somebody else’s life. And that’s an uncomfortable position to be in, even though it’s sometimes necessary. Because stories about other people end up being important, for all of us to understand so that we can figure out how to go forward. That’s our life, passing and telling each other stories, and trying to figure out how to learn from them.