Julian Assange sits in his spartan room in the Ecuadorian embassy like a figure from a storybook; cornered by his enemies and yet, in recent days, reportedly reaching out through cyberspace to advise the latest disciple of his WikiLeaks movement, Edward Snowden. The man who the genuinely imprisoned source of his most massive leak, Private Bradley Manning, called a “crazy white-haired Aussie” is as compelling and visually iconic as the superhero some take him to be.
Oliver Stone recently paid him a reverent visit, and unsurprisingly a rush of Assange films is on the way. Photos of Benedict Cumberbatch sporting those distinctive white locks have made Bill Condon's The Fifth Estate the most high-profile, but it has competition from Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney's We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, an unnamed BBC-HBO production directed by Inside Job's Charles Ferguson and written by Brighton Rock's Rowan Joffe, a film with The Hurt Locker's Oscar-winning writer Mark Boal attached, and Australian Robert Connolly's biopic of Assange the teenage hacker, Underground. Condon's and Gibney's films have both been condemned, unseen, by Assange and his followers.
“You have an individual who is trying to make a tremendous difference, who singularly is going out to take on the American state,” Gibney says, summing up the activist's cinematic appeal. “He comes from Magnetic Island, which Captain Cook claimed fouled his compasses, he grew up as an itinerant child whose only friend was the internet. Come on! How often do characters like this come along? He's the Silver Surfer of the internet.”
Gibney began by believing Assange was just such an unblemished hero. “I was terribly impressed with him as this lone, romantic figure, wandering the world with a laptop in his backpack, trying to right wrongs, and expose abuses of power.” But by the time he finished We Steal Secrets, he had uncovered a more ambiguous character. “He remains true to the idea that it's important to expose abuses of power. There's a fundamental flaw, which is that he's dedicated his life to holding corporations and governments to account, but he hates being held to account. He can't admit wrongdoing himself.”
Connolly, a specialist in lean, politically committed thrillers, provides a sort of origin-story for Assange in Underground, which follows his life in grunge-era Melbourne squat-land up to his arrest in 1991, aged 20, in part for hacking into the Pentagon during the Gulf War. The film's star Alex Williams looks familiarly pale, and plays him as arrogant, but adolescently vulnerable. Motivation for the future comes as his anti-war activist mother Christine is remorselessly stalked across Australia by his half-brother's father, a member of the cult The Family. “They kept getting found by this guy, and he kept going, 'who is leaking this?'” says Connolly. “That's when he started to believe that government was susceptible to corruption and bribery.”
Though the ambiguity of Assange's character comes through, Connolly intends his example to inspire. “They're in their late teens, these characters,” he says. “And when Underground was broadcast on Channel 10 in Australia, which has a very young demographic, the young audience all watched it that night. It's about the individualism of young people. Assange begins as a hacker having fun with his mates.” The film ends as he becomes something more. “There's a final moment where he's walking up the stairs to go into the court, and he gives this little wry smile. It's the beginning of: 'Okay, I've got an audience now.'”
We Steal Secrets picks up the story as Assange, still largely unknown, founds WikiLeaks in 2006. Footage of him lecturing in Iceland shows a diffident, hunched man. Filmed as he's about to face the world's press in 2010, after WikiLeaks's joint publication of Bradley Manning's leak proving US abuses, he's buzzing with nerves, a genuinely heroic lone man with a laptop, hopelessly outgunned by the forces he has unleashed. “You can see him grow into his personality,” Gibney agrees. “And suddenly he's thrusting his chest forward. By the time I met Assange [to negotiate an interview which never happened], I would see glimpses of a human being, but otherwise he seemed to be a human megaphone, talking to hear the echo of his voice, bouncing back from the wall behind you.”
Gibney believes Assange's ideals were warped by the huge fame and American government vilification which buffeted him in 2010. The film shows him shape-shifting under the pressurising glare of the world's gaze, trying on roles. In his convoluted reactions to his sex-crime charges in Sweden (which the film is revelatory about), it's as if he has written his own conspiracy thriller, with himself as the star.
“Over time he tends to cast more and more people in the roles of villains, as he has me,” says Gibney. “And there tends to be only one real hero. There is much to admire about Julian Assange in this film. But just because somebody opposes the forces of power, it doesn't make them necessarily a good person.
“My view is he didn't have to be in the Ecuadorian Embassy.,” says Gibney. “But it's a perfect vehicle for his imagination. He's the Count of Monte Cristo, and he can sit there and imagine all the plots he can make going forward.”
'We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wiki-Leaks' is out now. 'The Fifth Estate' is out on 1 January 'Under-ground' awaits a UK distributor