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Headline Rewind: WikiLeaks and All the President’s Men

On weekends when the Walker Cinema is empty, Walker Staff will point you to other films pulled from a headline in the week’s news in a series called Headline Rewind. News Event: Pfc. Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks Appearing before a military judge yesterday for more than an hour, Pfc. Bradley Manning confessed to supplying a […]

On weekends when the Walker Cinema is empty, Walker Staff will point you to other films pulled from a headline in the week’s news in a series called Headline Rewind.

News Event: Pfc. Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks

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Appearing before a military judge yesterday for more than an hour, Pfc. Bradley Manning confessed to supplying a vast quantity of military and diplomatic files to the antisecrecy website WikiLeaks. The former intelligence analyst stationed in Iraq alleged that he provided this suppressed information in order to make the public aware of the volatile secrets its government was keeping, as well as to spark an open debate about American foreign policy. According to Manning, he came to the conclusion that none of the materials he uploaded to WikiLeaks — which included videos of airstrikes resulting in civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, logs of military incident reports, information regarding detainees at Guantánamo Bay, and 250,000 cables sent by American diplomats internationally — could damage national security. Nonetheless, his ten guilty pleas could lead to 20 years in prison, and possibly more if military prosecutors decide to charge Manning with violating the United States’ Espionage Act.

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Private Manning’s testimony — especially his statement that “the world would be a better place if states would not make secret deals with each other” — has only added to his underground appeal among advocacy and whistleblower groups. The eternal debate regarding government secrets and its willful misleading of the American public (specifically the question of whether policymakers and politicians should suppress information in order to “protect” the country) has only intensified in the digital age, when anyone with Internet access can disseminate vital information to mass populations. This controversial question is manifested in the figure of Private Manning, who represents a courageous freedom fighter for some, and a potential threat to national security for others.

Film Recommendation: All the President’s Men

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The Orwellian tendency of governments to hide information from their constituents may be even more pertinent in an online age — a fact supported by the number of WikiLeaks documentaries in various states of distribution — but the question has been relevant (and insurmountable) practically since the days of Nero. One of the finest films to deal with the hegemonic suppression of information, as well as the enterprising quest by journalists and activists to uncover these secrets, is Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 film All the President’s Men. Released less than a year after the fall of Saigon ended the Vietnam War — a time when the barbaric crimes committed by the U.S. government and military were beginning to come to light, and when American action-thrillers were at their bleakest and most outraged (see also Pakula’s 1974 The Parallax View and Sydney Pollack’s 1975 Three Days of the Condor) — All the President’s Men follows two Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (who wrote the book on which the film is based), as they uncover the Watergate scandal via their top-secret government contact, Deep Throat. Ultimately they discover that Watergate was not merely an attempt to conceal Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President (a scheme intended to sabotage Nixon’s democratic opponent), but American covert operations as a whole.

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If Private Manning and Julian Assange, among others, act as modern-day Bernsteins and Woodwards, then All the President’s Men‘s brilliant, formally complex portrayal of the interpenetration (and active resistance) between the government and mass media might shed some light on how volatile information is both concealed and exposed in the 21st century. The dogged investigations and editorial marathons undergone by Woodward, Bernstein, their Post editor Ben Bradlee, and various colleagues have transformed over the last four decades, yet the nebulous infrastructures meant to keep political machinery chugging away have remained in place. All the President’s Men is one of the finest, most disturbing, yet ultimately inspiriting exposés of the dark pathways through which such combustible information travels. The film is available on DVD through Netflix, on instant viewing at Amazon.com, and on YouTube.