SIFF Roundup: “We Steal Secrets”, “Stories We Tell” (Updated)

Still from "We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks"
We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks
Directed by Alex Gibney (documentary)

Prolific documentarian Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer) is an adept interviewer, but he confronts a serious challenge when it comes to tackling the career and cult of personality of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, as well as alleged whistleblower PFC Bradley Manning. The film ends (as of March 2013, an end-credits crawl informs us) with both of its subjects locked in a room for an indeterminate length of time – Manning locked in the Marine Corps brig in Quantico, VA, and Assange in sequestered asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London. We Steal Secrets makes no claim of access to either of its principal subjects (although Gibney claims to have met with Assange on an estate in the English countryside, wherein he declined to appear in the film), but relies instead on the swath of publicly available material on both men.

Consequently, the film could be little more than a shallow, pop-journalistic chronicle of these events, but it succeeds in challenging much of the conventional wisdom surrounding the case. Julian Assange was indeed a thorn in the sides of several governments, as well as a crusader for free speech and free information. And yet, he is also an accused sex criminal who has declined to answer the official accusations against him. These events dovetailed into a level of paranoia that I (and Gibney, and many others) found quite alluring when they first came to light – surely the accusations were nothing more than an attempt to embarrass or discredit a man who had stepped on the wrong toes. But Gibney argues quite convincingly that that the internet hivemind’s opposition to Assange’s extradition or prosecution has little to do with the facts of the case, but rather with Assange’s cult of personality. Assange can be nothing more or less than a total guardian of free speech and information – a paragon, or nothing at all. The Internet, in all its subtlety, is unable to accept anything in-between. Nor is it willing to accept the conceptual utility of WikiLeaks as a tool for forcibly open democracy without a man like Assange – who dresses and talks like a James Bond villain – as its charismatic leader.

All of these contradictions come to a head in We Steal Secrets, whose title tells us a good deal more about ourselves as Americans and internet users than it does about WikiLeaks. Gibney focuses on the human side of whistleblowing – specifically, the chat logs between Manning and hacker Adrian Lamo. Manning comes off in a sympathetic, if not precisely admirable light. The secure dropboxing of confidential files becomes the desperate outreach of a lonely, tortured soul in the desert who just can’t come to grips with what he is experiencing – to say nothing of who he is. And for much of the film’s runtime, an uninitiated viewer would have no idea who the source of these chat logs might be, since they appear on-screen with simple, text-based flourishes and distant typing sounds. Manning’s musings become a lone voice in the darkness with no clear provenance. Editor Andy Grieve keeps the pace moving nicely (and makes one particularly haunting montage use of Lady Gaga’s “Telephone”). The film is 130 minutes long, but remains quite gripping throughout. Gibney manages to ask a great many provocative questions of several powerful individuals involved (including the thoroughly candid retired general Michael Hayden, ex-director of both the CIA and the NSA), which mixes nicely with a wealth of archive footage of Assange. Despite his lofty goals, the grudging consensus seems to be that WikiLeaks did little more than embarrass the countries involved. With this film, Gibney may have only accomplished the same for Assange himself, but this still makes an effective chronicle of a story that is very much still in progress.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

Update (2013-05-23): WikiLeaks has posted a complete transcript of the film, annotated with their own comments and rebuttals. You can read it here.

Still from "Stories We Tell"
Stories We Tell
Directed by Sarah Polley (documentary)

Actress and writer/director Sarah Polley is no stranger to putting personal stories on film – her 2011 drama Take This Waltz examines a crumbling marriage (focusing on a housewife played by Michelle Williams). While that fictitious story was undeniably put to film in the wake of Polley’s own divorce, the viewer is left to speculate about the extent to which Polley’s own experience may have informed her screenwriting. Not so with Stories We Tell. In this documentary, Polley brings an intensely personal story to life starring her entire extended family, and the narrative is structured in such a way that would practically prevent Polley from coloring it exclusively with her own perspective. This is a meta-narrative, in which we cut back and forth between Polley’s father (the captivating Michael Polley) sitting in a recording booth reading a prepared third-person account of his life experience, and being interviewed (in first-person) to react to the very same events. The contrast between these two perspectives (each from the same man with varying levels of preparation) is utterly fascinating, and becomes even more so when mixed with the other storytellers. These include Polley’s siblings, relatives, and various old friends of her now-deceased mother, whose life and children are the film’s principal subjects.

The mystery of Diane Polley (Sarah’s mother) is at the core of this film. With this woman dead and gone, all that her loved ones have left are their own memories and perspectives – and the narratives that they construct from them. The film gets at the heart of storytelling as a technique for making sense of the world, and does so in a manner that is utterly free from reproach. The Polley family never once struck me as self-obsessed or navel-gazing individuals. Not only are they a captivating bunch, but they also demonstrate a healthy measure of humility when it comes to rendering this intensely personal (and potentially humiliating) story. You really get the feeling watching the film that if this documentary were to be viewed by no one else except for the individuals involved, they would all be okay with that. This is one of the most earnest personal testaments that I’ve seen since 2008’s Dear Zachary, a film which served a much more subdued and heart-wrenching narrative than what is on display here. The saddest part of this story is that Diane is not around to answer these questions herself, and yet the stories that remain behind feel just as important and vivacious in her absence. This film is nothing short of a masterpiece – hilarious and heartfelt, and brilliantly blurring the lines between documentary and reenactment. It is an act of courage and personal conviction, delivered with an admirable measure of humility.

It’s only in the film’s final act that it shows its hand a bit, and some viewers may find the “making of itself” portion of the documentary to be a bit tedious. For a film nerd like me, it did nothing to diminish the experience, since it only served to further elucidate the precise nature and value of good storytelling. To illuminate how this documentary reluctantly came together only served to add additional weight and consequence to the story. Even as the film’s principal subjects debate who was the most fitting person to render these events into a narrative, it becomes ironically clear that this story ceased to be their exclusive property the moment they decided to tell it. The genie is out of the bottle, but the world is better off for it.

FilmWonk rating: 9 out of 10

Vincenzo Natali’s “Splice” – What hath man wrought?

“Tonight I ask you to pass legislation to prohibit the most egregious abuses of medical research: human cloning in all its forms; creating or implanting embryos for experiments; creating human-animal hybrids; and buying, selling or patenting human embryos.”

-George W. Bush

We all heard it, or at least heard about it – the moment when the President of the United States, perhaps after watching Mansquito on the Sci-Fi Channel, stood before Congress for a Constitutionally-mandated State of the Union and demanded that they ban the creation of human-animal hybrids. We laughed, or at least chuckled a bit. Most of us knew about Dolly, the cloned sheep. A few of us might’ve seen the mouse with a mock human ear on its back. But human-animal hybrids? Did the President honestly expect us to believe that there’s a lab somewhere diligently toiling to build its very own centaur?

From Cube director Vincenzo Natali comes Splice, a provocative and disturbing drama that explores that very possibility. The film stars Adrian Brody and Sarah Polley as Clive and Elsa, a pair of rockstar geneticists working to synthesize a miraculous, disease-fighting protein by splicing together DNA from a variety of different animals. The lab’s aesthetic is very pop-sci… Think “CSI” with snazzier wardrobe – I daresay Adrian Brody sports a different novelty geek tee in every scene. The two scientists are also romantically involved, which makes their almost giddy pursuit of new life that much more poignant. Their first several creations are failures, pickling grotesquely in jars next to celebratory champagne bottles with the name of each prospective bioengineered couple – “Adam and Eve”, “Sid and Nancy”, and the latest – the still-living “Fred and Ginger”. Appropriately, these two look like a pair of huge, malformed guinea pigs. With no faces and third-degree burns. They’re monstrous to behold, and serve quite effectively to remind the viewer that it took millions of years of evolution to make us look as sexy as we do now, and a bit of random DNA splicing is likely to end up lacking in the aesthetic department.

'How do you know what she'll do?'
'I just know, okay?!'

With this in mind, it makes sense that Clive and Elsa would go behind the backs of their bosses to incorporate human DNA into the mix, but it’s still a bit of a cinematic conceit that the resulting creature looks much less horrifying than Fred and Ginger. Dren, as she comes to be called [Nerd spelled backwards], looks more or less human from the torso up, but sports double-jointed legs, feet that are equal parts monkey and kangaroo, and a rather ominous looking tail (Didn’t Chekhov say something about a huge, venomous spike in the first act?).

The creature design and visual effects are just superb. Much like the creatures of Will Wright’s “Spore”, Dren was is clearly designed to be viewed in stages; to this end, we have cinematic conceit #2… Her aging is rapidly accelerated. After a series of CG quasi-fetuses, Dren is played by a human child with various practical and CG tweaks. As an adult, she is played to great effect by French actress/model Delphine Chanéac. For a performance in which she never utters human speech, Chanéac makes Dren into at least a somewhat legitimate “character”. But she’s also bald, she never blinks, her head darts around like a bird, and she moves with an animalistic fluidity and speed. Like the residents of the uncanny valley, Dren seems irrevocably human, and yet even when her animal parts aren’t visible, she just seems…wrong.

Consequently, Elsa’s interaction with Dren is pretty jarring at first. She seems to forms a maternal bond almost immediately, to Clive’s chagrin. But while her relationship with Dren developed mostly organically, Elsa didn’t completely work for me as a character… She starts off as the moral “Eve” of the situation, acting as the impetus behind the creation of the beast and then dragging Clive along for the ride, but as the film goes on, her history and motivations get a bit muddled (particularly by the rushed introduction of the character’s less than healthy upbringing). In spite of these minor difficulties, Polley gives a fantastic performance, the chemistry between her and Brody is undeniable. They are completely believable together as both a romantic couple and quasi-parents (although this may be the most striking example yet of why a couple shouldn’t work together!).

At first, Elsa and Clive seem almost high on life (which seems plausible enough for cutting edge geneticists), but their boldness and arrogance is thoroughly smacked down as the film goes on. We are run through a myriad of moral and ethical questions regarding the creation and upbringing of a human-animal hybrid. There were the ones I expected – Do you treat it like a human or an animal? Like a pet or a research subject? – and a few others I frankly never would’ve imagined*. There was one question that I would have liked to see more of – what do you teach a creature with near-human intelligence? We see a bit of this when Dren is a child, but due to her rapid aging and character changes, this question is too hastily abandoned. Nonetheless, Splice is quite impressive as a bioethical thought experiment, perhaps joining the ranks alongside (but not quite eclipsing) Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca. And like that film, it tackles material that will probably no longer be science fiction in a decade or two.

'None of her animal components have predatory characteristics.'
'There is the human element...'

Splice also reminded me of Jurassic Park, reiterating that film’s ethos of “life will find a way”. The only problem with the film’s portrayal is that in the case of a designer organism, it’s not entirely clear – either to us or the organism itself – what exactly it’s finding a way to do. It doesn’t fit in with the natural order, and its behavior (and relationship with other creatures) is governed largely by overlapping and often contradictory tidbits of chemical instinct. I may be giving Splice too much credit, but this naturalistic chaos may well be the point the film is trying to make. And like Jurassic Park before it, the characters certainly pay a believable price for their hubris.

In its marketing, Splice looks more or less like a typical monster flick, although only about 10% of it is what I would really call creature-horror. Nonetheless, Vincenzo Natali’s direction throughout the film ably plays on monster movie conventions to add additional stakes (and a few brilliant moments of dark comedy) to what might otherwise be an overwrought morality play. Splice may well be one of my favorite films of this year, but it is also one of the most visceral and shocking things I’ve ever seen, and it’s definitely not for everyone. But Natali has once again proven himself a thoughtful and provocative sci-fi writer/director. Splice may not explore every possibility of its audacious premise, but it is still a brilliant and haunting achievement.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

*Ah, the fevered dream of every sci-fi explorer from James Kirk to Jason Mewes. Was I surprised? Certainly. Disturbed? Not really**.
**(the first time, at least)