We Steal Secrets:
The Story of WikiLeaks
Opens Fri., June 14 at SIFF Cinema Uptown. Rated R. 130 minutes.
Alex Gibney is the documentary filmmaker whose politically charged exposés include Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side. It makes sense that he would clamber onto the spicy tale of Julian Assange, the white-haired super-hacker whose WikiLeaks enterprise has brought down the wrath of governments and corporations. Gibney should be a good match with the subject. But We Steal Secrets, while containing no shortage of fascinating material, is less than satisfying.
Gibney begins with background on Assange and WikiLeaks, building to the 2010 disclosure of a video of the U.S. military killing people revealed to be non-combatants in Baghdad. That was followed by the cascade of classified documents leaked by Assange and simultaneously published in The New York Times.
Although the film stops to discuss this material, and allows for talking heads to comment on it, the focus shifts to personalities. One is Assange, whose image gradually evolves from glamorous-if-nerdy whistleblower to paranoid egotist. Assange has inspired much hero worship among his admirers, so let me add that yes, he has plenty of reason to be paranoid, and probably almost as much reason to be an egotist. We Steal Secrets covers the charges of sexual impropriety made against Assange by two Swedish women, and—though Assange’s backers dispute this—appears to lay out an even-handed case. That legal thicket is part of the reason Assange has spent over a year inside Ecuador’s embassy in London, awaiting exile, extradition, or arrest.
The other personality is Bradley Manning, the U.S. soldier whose access to thousands of classified items allegedly led him to spill this great cache to Assange and company. You can almost feel Gibney’s attention gravitating to Manning’s curious profile: a troubled gay Oklahoma kid, too sensitive to belong in the military, overwhelmed by loneliness while stationed in Iraq. (Disastrously, he confides in a cyber-buddy about his leak to Assange.)
Neither Manning nor Assange is interviewed, so we have to glean what we can from prior interviews and statements. A bigger problem: While the film’s release is timely (Manning’s trial began last week, and the NSA leak gives a new life to the subject), there’s a lingering sense that We Steal Secrets arrives while its story is in midstream. There’s too much hanging in the balance for this movie to feel definitive.