A masterclass in propaganda
I have just watched We Steal Secrets, Alex Gibney's documentary about Wikileaks and Julian Assange. One useful thing I learned is the difference between a hatchet job and character assassination. Gibney is too clever for a hatchet job, and his propaganda is all the more effective for it.
The film's contention is that Assange is a natural-born egotist and, however noble his initial project, Wikileaks ended up not only feeding his vanity but also accentuating in him the very qualities -- secretiveness, manipulativeness, dishonesty and a hunger for power -- he so despises in the global forces he has taken on.
This could have made for an intriguing, and possibly plausible, thesis had Gibney approached the subject-matter more honestly and fairly. But two major flaws discredit the whole enterprise.
The first is that he grievously misrepresents the facts in the Swedish case against Assange of rape and sexual molestation to the point that his motives in making the film are brought into question.
To shore up his central argument about Assange's moral failings, he needs to make a persuasive case that these defects are not only discernible in Assange's public work but in his private life too.
We thus get an extremely partial account of what occurred in Sweden, mostly through the eyes of A, one of his two accusers. She is interviewed in heavy disguise.
Gibney avoids referring to significant aspects of the case that would have cast doubt in the audience's mind about A and her testimony. He does not, for example, mention that A refused on Assange's behalf offers made by her friends at a dinner party for the Wikileaks leader to move out of her place and into theirs -- a short time after she says the sexual assault took place.
The film also ignores the prior close relationship between A and the police interviewer and its possible bearing on the fact that the other complainant, S, refused to sign her police statement, suggesting that she did not believe it represented her view of what had happened.
But the most damning evidence against Gibney is his focus on a torn condom submitted by A to the police, unquestioningly accepting its significance as proof of the assault. The film repeatedly shows a black and white image of the damaged prophylactic.
Gibney even allows a theory establishing a central personality flaw in Assange to be built around the condom. According to this view, Assange tore it because, imprisoned in his digital world, he wanted to spawn flesh-and-blood babies to give his life more concrete and permanent meaning.
The problem is that investigators have admitted that no DNA from Assange was found on the condom. In fact, A's DNA was not found on it either. The condom, far from making A a more credible witness, suggests that she may have planted evidence to bolster a case so weak that the original prosecutors dropped it.
There is no way Gibney could not have known these well-publicized concerns about the condom. So the question is why would he choose to mislead the audience?
Without A, the film's case against Assange relates solely to his struggle through Wikileaks to release secrets from the inner sanctums of the US security state. And this is where the film's second major flaw reveals itself.
Gibney is careful to bring up most of the major issues concerning Assange and Wikileaks, making it harder to accuse him of distorting the record. Outside the rape allegations, however, his dishonesty relates not to an avoidance of facts and evidence but to his choice of emphasis.