Since 2006, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been running around pulling down the pants of corporations and governments alike. Now Alex Gibney returns the favor with a feisty portrait of the populist hero in “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks,” exposing what Gibney sees as the paradox at the center of Assange’s methods, wherein the man responsible for uncovering high-level corruption refuses to discuss perceived corruption in his own life. While Assange’s enigmatic appeal should draw substantial curiosity for this Focus World release in theatrical and VOD, it’s the site’s key leaker, Bradley Manning, who leaves the strongest impression.
Like Gibney’s previous nonfiction portraits of high-profile hubris (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer”), “We Steal Secrets” charts the Icarus-like plunge of a character the public only partly understands, despite his high media visibility. But in contrast with those earlier docs, which compel largely through Gibney’s gift for un-mashing political hot potatoes and serving them up as great human-interest stories, the conflict at the core of the WikiLeaks saga is dramatically lacking.
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An Australian ex-hacker who established WikiLeaks as a Web-based, anonymous-submission forum for whistleblowers, Assange talked a good game oncamera, the proverbial David standing up to Goliath-sized governments and corporations, vowing to publish secret reports the public needed to know. The pic relives the excitement of WikiLeaks’ early scoops, using Assange’s cocky press appearances to frame him as a self-righteous “transparency radical.”
Meanwhile, in a captivating subplot introduced early on, abandoned and brought back late in the film, auds meet intelligence analyst Manning, a conflicted computer genius with surprising secrets of his own. Caught in the middle of a gender-identity crisis, Manning comes across as a bizarre yet sympathetic figure who responded to perceived war crimes by downloading thousands of files that, in a post-9/11 internal information-sharing reorganization, the U.S. government made vulnerable to such an attack. Spilling his haul to WikiLeaks, Manning incurred the wrath of President Obama, Hillary Clinton and the usual group of loudmouth political pundits, whom Gibney portrays as small minds.
After a long run of Bush-critical pics, it’s heartening to see Gibney shift his target to the current administration, demonstrating an ongoing willingness to take on the Man, whoever that may be. Among his sources here are ex-“classification czar” J. William Leonard and government-secret expert Michael Hayden, both eloquent on the situation’s often-ironic complexity.
Gibney seems to have caught up with the story after the 2010 release of the Afghan War Logs, files apparently supplied by Manning that WikiLeaks broke in concert with several major newspapers (traditional outlets that, protected by freedom of the press, took less heat for sharing classified information). Without direct access to either Assange or Manning, Gibney is forced to rely on secondhand interviews from colleagues and friends, or in Manning’s case, a former commanding officer and virtual hacker buddy, Adrian Lamo.
Ample footage exists of Assange, much of it quite revealing about the silver-haired provocateur’s agenda and personality, though the testimony of past and present members of the WikiLeaks team paints him as venal, paranoid and unconcerned with the safety of those compromised by his actions — a man undone by “noble-cause corruption,” according to one. Seemingly hypocritically, Assange demands that his co-workers sign non-disclosure agreements.
Manning, by contrast, is personified as a ghost in the machine, a blinking cursor whose lower-case text messages to Lamo reveal a hesitant, deeply conflicted soul.
As the story unfolds, complications arise that push Assange and Manning to opposing ends of the sympathy spectrum. As one of Gibney’s sources remembers, Assange said, “If an Afghan informer gives information to coalition forces, they deserve to be killed,” an attitude totally at odds with Manning’s own justification for his seditious behavior: “i … care?”
Those familiar with the story already know what comes next: Two women file rape charges against Assange in Sweden, while Lamo reports Manning to the authorities. Both cases spark protests in the streets and distraction in the media, and the film does its best to parse the ensuing circus, suggesting that Assange’s professional love of transparency should have kept him from walking out during an interview in which a journalist asks about the rape case. But the docu starts to run long, shifting from the deeper philosophical issues to a form of tabloid journalism, injecting humor with “Star Trek” clips and a tacky Taiwanese animated news report.