We Steal Secrets, A Gun in Each Hand, Pacific Rim

July 13, 2013
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If ever you had a sneaking feeling that Julian Assange was not the ultimate hero and martyr of our time, Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets will turn suspicion into certainty. The portrait of the WikiLeaks founder that emerges from this documentary reveals a man whose quest for truth has become an exercise in personal propaganda. The most damning testimony for this view comes from those who were once Assange’s closest friends and supporters.

Assange denounced this film before he had seen it, objecting to the title, which actually comes from a statement by Michael Hayden, former Head of the CIA, who boldly admits that the US government steals secrets. Gibney, known for his documentaries on Enron and the pedophile cover-ups of the Catholic Church, has given us neither a character assassination nor an anti-WikiLeaks diatribe.

We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks takes a much broader approach, looking at a world in the wake of 9/11, when secrecy became an obsession for the United Sates and its allies, with the number of classified documents multiplying exponentially. At the same time the Americans began a program of sharing information between government agencies to better combat the many faces of terrorism. When an incalculable, ever-growing volume of ‘secrets’, is shared between 4 million operatives and bureaucrats, security becomes an impossiblity.

This was the state of play in 2010 when Private Bradley Manning downloaded hundreds of thousands of items of classified information from U.S. government networks and passed them on to WikiLeaks. The subsequent release of this information, both on the WikiLeaks website and in newspapers such as The Guardian and The New York Times, caused massive embarrassment to the United States, but there is little evidence to suggest that it compromised national security.

What this episode chiefly revealed was the degree to which a culture of paranoia had taken control in the highest offices, as the U.S. government unecessarily kept more and more information away from the general public. Even the notorious ‘collateral murder’ video that showed U.S. helicopter pilots firing on civilians and Reuters journalists, may not have shocked as many people as suggested. It’s amazing what atrocities may be excused when the “articles of engagement” are said to be correct.

Gibney profiles all the major players in this saga – from the deeply disturbed Bradley Manning, who was suffering a private ‘gender identity’ crisis at the time, to the bizarre hacker, Adrian Lamo, a sufferer from Aspberger’s syndrome, who betrayed Manning to the authorities.

It is Assange who provides the main focus of this story, even though he allegedly refused to give Gibney an interview unless he was paid a million dollars. There is a massive amount of footage, much of it apparently shot by Mark Davis of SBS, who followed  the drama as it unfolded. We first meet the young Julian as a teenage hacker in Melbourne, in trouble with the Victorian police; and find him again as the cyber crusader who blew the whistle on the corruptions of the Icelandic banking system.

It is the material provided by Bradley Manning that propels Assange into the spotlight. To his former allies he became a ‘rockstar’ perpetually surrounded by TV cameras and groupies. This is where the infamous Swedish rape charges arose, as Assange was alleged to have had unprotected sex with two of his admirers. This incident was widely believed to be a conspiracy to punish the WikiLeaks boss for his political activites. However, Gibney features an interview with one of the women involved, who tells her side of the story. Suddenly the idea of a conspiracy and smear campaign becomes a little blurred at the edges.

Could Assange have saved himself from prosecution, harrassment, and his ongoing vigil in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, if he had simply submitted to a test for HIV? This is the implication of the interview with his accuser. It doesn’t alter the fact that there are mysterious aspects to the rape charges, but it does suggest Assange may have been the architect of his own downfall.

It’s hard to feel too much sympathy for someone who has apparently already fathered four children by four different women. This seems beyond careless, it’s more like a megalomaniac trying to promulgate his genes. It also argues a lack of concern for others, an alarming absence of empathy. And this, finally, is the devasting part of this story: that the man who spoke out so bravely in the name of truth and justice, seems almost sociopathic in his lack of regard for other people, whether it be the women he sleeps with, or the Afghanistani civilians who could have been identified and victimised because of an indiscriminate release of information. His reported attitude was that those who collaborated with the Americans deserved to die.

Gibney implies that it is Bradley Manning who is the real hero in this story. Assange, as former supporters such as Jemima Khan, an executive producer on this film, have been quick to point out, has forfeited the trust of his colleagues due to his own high-handed behaviour. This may or may not not have an impact on Asange’s campaign for election to the Australian Senate. Given some of the politicians we already have, one might say he seems eminently qualified for the job.

There’ll be people who go along to Cesc Gay’s A Gun in Each Hand expecting to find Django shooting up a town full of evil, sweaty hombres. Instead, they will find themselves in the midst of what must be one of the most defiant pieces of anti-machismo filmmaking ever to come out of Spain.

This is a movie crammed with wellknown Spanish actors playing an utterly pathetic group of men. To preserve some vestige of pride they cling to various ideas about themselves. For instance, that one may simply be a victim of circumstance. “If only it hadn’t been raining that night,” says Javier Cámara’s character. “Then I wouldn’t have gone into that bar and met Monica.” Ricardo Darín plays a cuckolded husband who prides himself on being reasonable and understanding. If his wife is having an affair it must be his fault in some way. Conversely, Eduardo Noriega feels hurt and offended when his attempt to cheat on his wife is thwarted.

Although the style of the movie has echoes of those Hollywood travesties such as Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve, where a lot of celebrities play small roles that all come together at the end, the dialogue is much smarter, and the scenarios more amusing. Most importantly, there is no room for sentimentality in this bleak overview of middle-aged Spanish manhood.

The film begins with two friends meeting unexpectedly and gradually revealing the mess they have each made of their lives. One is successful but riddled with phobias, the other a rank failure who lives with his mother. Scenario two features an estranged husband hinting, none too subtly, that he would like to get back with his ex-wife, but finding it is too late. In the third vignette a man shadows his wife while she pursues an assignation with her lover, and describes his predicament to an acquaintance he meets in the park. The fourth story shows us a botched seduction at the office party and its consequences. The final piece has two friends accidentally meeting up with each other’s wives and hearing some disturbing reports. They now know too much about each other, and share the unpleasant realisation that their wives pool every scrap of information about their marriages.

I’ve always been a little sceptical about the so-called ‘dilemmas of masculinity’, which seem vastly preferable to the kinds of problems that women endure. Nevertheless those male dilemmas are laid bare in these stories, allowing a group of actors a wonderful opportunity to show what they can do. Being men they should act like they had a gun in each hand, but at every turn they are completely disarmed.

It’s a very dfferent version of masculinity portrayed by a Mexican director, the stylish Guillermo del Toro, in Pacific Rim. This flick, which may well be the ultimate Big Robot vs. Big Monster movie, is an unashamed cartoon. In many ways that makes it a more agreeable proposition than films such as Man of Steel, so prone to tortured psychologising. Del Toro’s story is yet another desperate attempt to save the world – this time from gigantic monsters called Kaiju who emerge from the depths of the ocean. To combat these beasts, the nations of the earth have pooled their resources and created a series of giant robots called Jaegers, which require two pilots with their minds joined in a psychic circuit. It’s basically Godzilla meets Transformers in glorious 3D.

Surprisingly the greatest psychic compatiblity among pilots comes with the characters played by blonde-haired Englishman, Charlie Hunnam, and petite Rinko Kikuchi. Although this sounds singularly implausible it gives the film a warm multi-cultural glow, and a hint of romance. The main attraction for most viewers will lie in the CGI action sequences, which should please the most discerning teenage connoisseurs. The ultimate catastrophe of Pacific Rim is not the destruction wrought by the Kaiju, but two terrible phoney Australian accents by Max Martini and Robert Kazinsky, who play a father and son team of Jaeger pilots.

 

We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, USA, rated M, 130 mins

A Gun in Each Hand, Spain, rated M, 95 mins

Pacific Rim, USA, rated M , 131 mins

 

Published by the Australian Financial Review, July 13, 2013