Alex Gibney on His WikiLeaks Documentary: Julian Assange Got Corrupted

Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney tells Marlow Stern about his WikiLeaks documentary, Julian Assange, and more.

Jo Straube

Alex Gibney is, without question, the most prolific documentary filmmaker working today. And his diverse oeuvre has targeted everything from financial corruption, in the Oscar-nominated Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, to the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, which examined U.S. war crimes abroad.

His latest subject is WikiLeaks, the controversial nonprofit publishing organization that, thanks to U.S. Army Pvt. Bradley Manning, released several caches of classified documents, including the Afghan War Diary, chronicling the war in Afghanistan; the Iraq War logs; and the U.S. State department diplomatic cables. The organization was created by Julian Assange—a suave, Australian ex-hacker who currently is seeking asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London in connection with an arrest warrant in Sweden related to a sexual-assault investigation. We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks follows the history of the organization, as well as its outspoken figurehead, Assange, and the troubled Army private who put them on the map.

Universal Pictures, under its Focus World banner, commissioned Gibney to make the documentary, and spent about a year and a half working on it. There also is a feature-film version dramatizing the WikiLeaks saga that began filming on Jan. 23. Distributed by Dreamworks, the film is directed by Bill Condon (Dreamgirls), and stars Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) as Assange.

Gibney sat down with The Daily Beast at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, where the movie premiered, to discuss the WikiLeaks saga, the curious case of Julian Assange, and more.

Prior to being commissioned to make this project, what was your take on WikiLeaks and Julian Assange?

I thought it was a classic David and Goliath story, and I was fully onboard Team WikiLeaks. I was very pro the leaks, barring the redaction issue. But I see WikiLeaks as a publisher. In the film we trace some of their earlier publications, particularly the Iceland one. Without that publication, people wouldn’t have been able to see this material that was so damaging and deeply corrupt. That is the purest example of the wonder of WikiLeaks. But in the course of making the film, my opinon of him changed somewhat.

Why did that change?

You’ll have to ask Julian. But I think it was a combination of his personality, since I think he was unprepared to handle the enormity of the fame that was thrust upon him, and someone says in the film, “We shouldn’t be surprised by this. Mendax by name, Mendax by nature.” Mendax is derived from splendide mendax, which is from Horace and means “nobly untruthful.” So I think his view was always, “Look, I’m pure of heart and want the best for society, so it’s OK for me to lie.” He’s also not a good listener, and he hates being held to account.

Isn’t that very indicative of Internet/hacker culture, that many of these people are fabulists who hide under screen names so they can’t be held accountable for any of the crazy shit they say and do?

One of the things it’s about, really, is the conundrums of the Internet. It’s a magnificent pool of freedom; it’s fantastical. On the other hand, it’s also a spying machine and also, as you suggest, people hide behind user names say the most appalling things. It would be hard to go to your neighbor and say the things people say on the Internet without getting punched out or having your tires slashed. So there’s a danger to that.

You visited Assange in his London hideout. How ramshackle is this WikiLeaks operation?

A few guys—and some gals—with computers. I ask someone in the film, “Is this like Microsoft?” And they say, “No. It’s more like a corner gas station with some very bright attendants.”

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You hung out with him quite a bit. Why wouldn’t he agree to an interview?

His view of that process is that he is a pamphleteer and propagandist, so he sees himself as a puppeteer who is working with the journalist or filmmaker only insofar as it advances his agenda, and then you have to ensure that it will advance his agenda or he won’t participate. He said the “market price” for an interview with him was $1 million, and I said, “I don’t care if it’s $10 million, I’m not paying you.” And then, he asked if I would be willing to spy on some of the other interview subjects and “get intel on them,” which of course I didn’t agree to either. But I met him a number of times. I’d say we met about four times and the last time was a nonstop, six-hour meeting. I even went to his 40th-birthday party.

What was his 40th-birthday party like? Did he break out some of his weird dance moves?

[Laughs] Oh, I wish I saw those. It was at the Norfolk Mansion [in England], and his father was there, of all things—the guy who abandoned him at a young age. A number of his wealthy supporters were there, and there was even an auction at the birthday party to raise money for WikiLeaks where he was auctioning off autographed copies of some of the cables. But it wasn’t that crazy. It was catered by a supporter of Julian’s and was a fairly conventional sit-down dinner.

Now, why is Julian Assange the one who is lionized as a First Amendment crusader, while Bradley Manning doesn’t get even close to that amount of credit for actually leaking the documents?

I don’t understand it, and frankly, I find it a bit offensive. Julian is great at marketing. He refers to them as “The WikiLeaks Cables.” Manning made WikiLeaks. Without Manning’s leaks, WikiLeaks is just another small enterprise that keeps going to cyber-conferences around the world.

Manning is a very mysterious, complex character, and you do devote a big chunk of time in the documentary to his character, and his gender-identity issues.

The initial presentation of the story was that Bradley Manning was a pure political figure, like a Daniel Ellsberg. I don’t think that’s a sufficient explanation of why he did what he did. I think he was alienated; he was in agony personally over a number of issues. He was lonely and very needy. And I think he had an identity crisis. He had this idea that he was in the wrong body and wanted to become a woman, and these issues are not just prurient. I think it raises big issues about who whistleblowers are, because they are alienated people who don’t get along with people around them, which motivates them to do what they do. To understand Bradley and all his humanity seemed terribly important in this film.

Why did your opinion of Assange ultimately change?

My perception changed fundamentally because I investigated the Swedish case. Initially, it seemed to me that Julian and his supporters were correct, and it was probably some kind of stunt to embarrass Julian at a moment when he was leaking all these documents. I investigated it and came to the conclusion that it was just the opposite. It was a personal matter that Julian cleverly transformed into a political issue. He says in the film, which is a classic Julian line, “I didn’t say it was a honey trap. I didn’t say it was not a honey trap.” What does that tell you? It takes you down the path of a mystery, but it’s also kind of a wink and a nod in the sense of Julian as this all-powerful person. There is absolutely no evidence that I was able to find other than that these women were mad at him, and they just wanted him to get an AIDS test. He refused, so they went to the police to force him to get an AIDS test.

But to have the word “rape” thrown about seemed, from an outsider’s perspective, like a very inflated charge.

No charges have been filed, so it’s even an illusion to think about what the charges would be until there are charges. But there have been criminal cases of sexual assault, and some of them have been convicted, either for intentionally spreading AIDS or intentionally making women pregnant.

Assange did get more and more paranoid, as the documentary states, as his popularity rose, to the point where he thought he was worthy of all these crazy espionage plots.

It’s fantastic, isn’t it? It’s as if he is Frodo carrying the ring and Sauran, the great eye in the American kingdom of Mordor, only has their eye on Julian and devotes all their resources to bringing him down. I’m sure there were a lot of chuckles within the Department of Defense when Julian Assange got mixed up with a condom case in Sweden, but I don’t think they were planting CIA agents there. Julian’s imagination is just fantastic.

Do you think we’ll be hearing more from Assange? Well, he already denounced the film on Twitter, even though he hasn’t seen it. I expect we’ll be hearing more denunciations in the future. I think a lot of this film is deeply sympathetic to Julian and his initial cause. I just think Julian got corrupted.

Do you think WikiLeaks is dead?

Why do we even need WikiLeaks? They’re not the only organization that publishes leaks. And they don’t have some special technology that allows them to post on the Internet with mirrored sites. The idea of WikiLeaks lives on, but as an organization, it’s become increasingly irrelevant.

You really are the hardest-working documentary filmmaker in the biz. What’s next?

Lance Armstrong. I’ve been working on that since 2009. I’ve had interviews with him over a long period of time, dating back to 2009. I don’t think the story has ended yet, and we’re trying to complete it as soon as possible.