Alex Gibney has directed his share of controversial documentaries. But only when he took on Wikileaks did he get his very own abusive hashtag.
"The Wikileaks organization and its followers are very much part of a propaganda machine," Gibney says. "Anything you say critically, you'll get slammed. It's not, like, we dispute a few issues here. It's hashtag #FuckAlexGibney."
It's unlikely that many Wikileaks supporters, who unveiled the #FuckAlexGibney meme during this year's Sundance Film Festival, have seen Gibney's film, "We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks." But they know its depiction of the organization's founder, Julian Assange, isn't 100 percent complimentary, and that's apparently enough.
"What I find remarkable, and this is why it becomes sort of a propaganda organization, is that Assange hasn't seen the film, even though he's denounced it," says Gibney, whose 2007 film "Taxi to the Dark Side" won the Oscar for Best Documentary. "Oliver Stone denounced the film and me on Twitter, even though he hasn't seen the film. It's kind of pathetic. Think about it: 'Oh, it's got to be bad because it's critical of Julian.'"
It's not as if the film's depiction of Assange is 100 percent negative. "He had brass balls to do what he did, and I think it's important," Gibney says of Assange. "But in the course of making the film, I was dismayed by the kind of self-regard and narcissism that seemed to overcome him."
Under Assange's leadership, Wikileaks joined forces with The New York Times, the Guardian and other news organizations to expose some of the world's most carefully kept secrets. A shocking video of U.S. forces calling down airstrikes on a group of misidentified Reuters journalists in the streets of Baghdad, released on April 5, 2010, was followed by huge dumps of Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, State Department cables and Guantánamo Bay prisoner files.
The leaks turned the lanky, prematurely gray Assange into a celebrity -- which may have led to his downfall. A pair of sexual encounters with female admirers in Sweden in 2010 led to a criminal investigation after the women compared notes and allegedly grew concerned that he may have exposed them both to HIV. (Gibney's film suggests a weirder possibility: that Assange, who reportedly has fathered four children with various women, may have a thing for spreading his seed around the world.)
Assange and his supporters have suggested that the accusations are part of a conspiracy to lure him to U.S. soil, where he may face charges under the Espionage Act. Going into filming, Gibney, who had previously made a documentary about the Eliot Spitzer prostitution scandal, was inclined to agree.
"From the outside, it seemed like there was some kind of CIA dirty trick because of the timing and everything else," Gibney says. "But I came to the conclusion that this was not at all a 'honey trap.' This was bad behavior. For a long time, I wasn't even sure I should deal with Sweden. It's like, why is that relevant to the transparency agenda? But he made it relevant. He was the one who purposely conflated it."
Gibney generally admires that transparency agenda -- the belief that secrets are anti-democratic and should be exposed when possible. That's why he finds it especially confounding that Assange and his followers seem to be discouraging people from seeing his film and making up their own minds.
"It's funny to me that they often make a big deal out of 'This is not sanctioned by Wikileaks' -- as if being sanctioned by Wikileaks is a prerequisite to seeing the film. I just did a film about the Vatican ['Mea Maxima Culpa']. Who would say, 'This isn't sanctioned by the Vatican, so don't see it?' How ridiculous is that?"
To Gibney, the criticism smacks of hypocrisy. "Wikileaks was supposed to be about the truth -- about the objective truth. It's not supposed to be about slamming people you don't like or slamming people who say you are wrong. That's what the CIA does."
Eventually, Gibney persuaded one of Assange's accusers to appear in the film. Her identity disguised, she describes being smeared by Wikileaks supporters and expresses her frustration with Assange's refusal to appear in Sweden to answer the charges against him. (Assange and his followers have a litany of justifications for his decision to hole up in the Ecuadorian embassy in Britain rather than face those charges, and a lively debate about their merits continues.)
One person Gibney never managed to interview on-camera was Assange himself. They met several times, but Gibney has said Assange demanded to be paid for a formal interview. Gibney refused, and began focusing more on Pfc. Bradley Manning, the soldier who has confessed to transferring the biggest troves of secrets to Wikileaks in the first place.
"He had been vilified early on as a flake … who wasn't thinking about what he did and just dumped everything," says Gibney, who came to believe that Manning had instead acted out of "political conviction."
Gibney's irritation with the Wikileaks attacks on his film pale in comparison to the righteous indignation he feels toward the Obama administration, which has charged Manning with "aiding the enemy," punishable by death. "I find it frankly despicable," he says. "I think they're scapegoating him for a lot of things that were failures inside the military, inside the chain of command."
Gibney points out that Manning, whose military trial is set to begin next month, has pleaded guilty to 10 lesser charges, effectively acknowledging that he was the source for Wikileaks' greatest hits. "I'm not saying that privates should be running out and leaking every bit of classified information they come across," Gibney says. "Manning took an oath not to do that, and he broke that oath and he pled guilty to it. There should be consequences, but not death."
Ultimately, says Gibney, the episode offers a disheartening look at the hypocrisies of another cherished liberal icon: President Barack Obama. "The Obama administration has been ruthless on the issue of secrets. They've gone after whistleblowers in a way that's unprecedented," Gibney says. "The Obama administration is supposed to be the grand experiment in full-on open democracy, and it's just not that way. They've taken the executive power that Bush and Cheney assumed and they've acceded more of that to themselves. They've gone further."
"We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks" opens May 24.
Correction: An earlier version of this story suggested that Assange asked Gibney for $1 million in exchange for an interview. Gibney mentioned that figure in the film, but did not specifically say that Assange asked for that amount. Rather, Gibney said it was the market rate for an interview with the Wikileaks founder.