Ian Scott is a Senior Lecturer in American Studies at The University of Manchester, and has recently written a book about the work of Oliver Stone, one of the world’s foremost political filmmakers. Here, he uses Stone’s latest feature – a biopic of whistleblower Edward Snowden – to introduce a piece about Julian Assange, WikiLeaks and the US elections.
At the end of another week where the US presidential election race, scandalous disclosures relating to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and the head of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, all collided in a cacophony of revelations, accusations and denials, it seems appropriate that the London Film Festival should see the opening of a new movie about the whistle-blower par excellence in Oliver Stone’s latest offering, Snowden.
Stone’s film revisits many of the issues the headlines have been grappling with in recent days, including new evidence that the British security forces (GCHQ is mentioned more than once in the picture) have been storing up information from private citizens for as much as seventeen years.
Greenberg reminded readers of WikiLeaks’s manifesto from a decade ago when this all started. If you can embarrass organisations into shame for their dishonesty, Assange wrote, they’ll either reform or pay a heavy price for enforcing secrecy. But does the self-proclaimed biggest whistle-blowing site in the world really believe this?
The latest set of WikiLeaks disclosures reminds us how much is at stake politically in the US and UK as the fallout from Brexit continues and the American election campaign reaches its climax. Amid the lurid tales of recrimination and accusation that have dominated the headlines, the New York Times recently reported that serious issues like surveillance had been tackled by the candidates, but that neither seemed to have a clear policy for protecting privacy rights while at the same time bolstering security against outside enemies like ISIS, if not Russian hackers.
The reports added grist to an already well-worn mill in this election that suggested the cycle of scandal and revelation throughout 2016 had gone so far beyond anything a Hollywood scriptwriter could make up, what was the point in trying any more?
Of course film has tried in a whole set of different ways to account for the surveillance culture at large and Snowden is only the latest in a line of cinematic responses. The release of another tranche of Hillary Clinton e-mails put the spotlight back on Assange whose brief emergence from his self-imposed exile at the Ecuadorian embassy in London reminded us of his own profile on screen and cranked up another spate of stories about the man’s personality, character flaws and motivations.
WikiLeaks have pointedly avoided disclosing any compromising information on the Trump campaign but have in some circles been perceived as “going after” Hillary in ways that have upset certain parts of Clinton’s media base in the US. As Andy Greenberg pointed out in Wired, there is the small matter of Donald Trump never using e-mail so remaining somewhat impregnable – as regards hacking at least - compared to Hillary’s Boswellian correspondence both privately and from within the State Department, but even so this hasn’t stopped some parts of the media from speculating that Assange has it in for Clinton and isn’t looking at Trump.
Indeed for a Republican campaign attempting to make hay with some of the public e-mails, accusations that Assange is somehow ‘helping’ Trump have even been levelled. For his part, Assange denied the Hillary revenge theory vehemently in a video post to a Berlin conference at the start of the month but the WikiLeaks intervention has opened up once more questions of where and how disclosures and documents are obtained and under whose pretext and personal ambition they are made public.
The week before the current furore broke WikiLeaks had announced there would be a big announcement coming on the US election. This prompted many of its follows in the US to set their alarms early – or late depending on your time-zone – and get up. Assange then proceeded to tell the New York Times that you don’t do big announcements at 3am in the morning, not only disappointing his followers but also rather conditioning the WikiLeaks publicity machine to that which it is intent on exposing. That big corporations dominate news cycles; that clever PR machines know how and when to manipulate the public’s feelings and gain their attention seemed to be something WikiLeaks was set up to condemn, not mimic.
As with some of Assange’s past pronouncements, such declarations often come across as less public service than they do self-aggrandisement.
And the personality is always the thing that ends up sticking. If the fourth estate hasn’t always helped Assange’s cause what about the capacity of film to put Assange’s position in perspective? After all WikiLeaks has benefitted from some high profile endorsements in the entertainment field and Assange has been the subject of two high-profile films: Alex Gibney’s documentary, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks and Bill Condon’s docu-drama feature, The Fifth Estate, both from 2013.
Both films do much to expose the secrets of big government spying and subterfuge. Both trumpet what remains WikiLeaks’ biggest expose; the so-called ‘Collateral Murder’ video from 2007 showing the deaths of civilians and reporters bombed by coalition planes in Baghdad. But both also find themselves rehearsing the pros and cons of Assange’s personality. They examine his alleged concern for agents and informants having their cover blown by the public releases; the debates over the organisation’s mandate; and, tellingly, the assessment of those close to Assange who characterise him in both movies as untrustworthy, even unhinged.
Assange’s personality has been contaminated again and again then by a media happy to broadcast WikiLeaks’ latest exclusives for their readers’ delectation, but also keen to sow the seeds of doubt about the leader’s intentions. Yet while Assange has remained something of an unreliable narrator in the eyes of friends and foes alike, Edward Snowden has survived most of the inquisitive overtures aimed at his character.
Unlike Assange, he’s actually been helped in this respect by cinema; in Snowden and in Laura Poitras’s award-winning documentary from 2014, Citizenfour. Both films parade Snowden as a clean-cut hero out to mend the system and their ideological positions have been aided in return by the man’s even-handed demeanour and considered public pronouncements. Snowden has rarely come across as simply railing at the world; and in laying out the case for government malfeasance and his own sacrifice in that cause, Stone and Poitras have been able defenders of him on screen.
The question of course is not whether Snowden is a ‘better’ person than Assange, nor is it some need to prove that the former NSA contractor has somehow been on the ‘front line’ and therefore has more credibility or right to a hearing than the WikiLeaks founder. Both have undoubtedly made sacrifices, rightly or wrongly, and both have clearly made contributions to a wider public understanding of secrecy and the depths of surveillance being carried out in the people’s name.
But both have now become media constructions and with that the ability of their actions to influence wider political dialogue is being staked on public acceptance of their credibility and intent. After Snowden’s much publicised jab at WikiLeaks’ ‘curatorial’ policy on leakage in the summer, the game was on to establish their long-term reputation.
Now with Assange’s only partially successful intervention in the climatic weeks of the presidential election campaign asking questions of him again as much as the evidence, only one of the two whistle-blowers is sustaining the public trust that can go further and possibly orchestrate real change after November 8th. That person is Edward Snowden, aided by filmmakers who have been able to elevate his public persona beyond the confines of mere politics and electioneering.
Snowden had its UK premiere at the London Film Festival on October 15th. To purchase Ian’s book ‘The cinema of Oliver Stone - art, authorship and activism’ from Manchester University Press, click here: http://www.manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk/9781526108715