"We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks."
We Steal Secrets
The title of Alex Gibney's ambitious documentary has an ironic edge: WikiLeaks doesn't steal secrets. The website functions as an electronic drop box that anonymously and untraceably cross-publishes sensitive documents in such ways that the information cannot be removed from the Internet.
According to the enigmatic Julian Assange, the Australian founder of the media organization, the goal is reform and the method transparency. The phrase about stealing secrets comes from Michael Hayden, the former director of the National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency, and applies not only to the activities of the U.S. government and Assange's possible baiting of whistleblowers, but also to Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, accused of aiding the enemy by sending troves of classified documents to WikiLeaks.
The Oscar-winning director of "Taxi to the Dark Side" shows all sides, playing truth and consequences with the ongoing saga currently unfolding in the daily news.
Relying on archival footage, interviews, graphics and voice-overs, Gibney has a strength that lies in his ability to wrestle an enormous amount of information into an easy-to-follow timeline. Like a fast-paced thriller, the film begins with WANK (Worms Against Nuclear Killers), Melbourne computer hackers who unleashed a worm against NASA in 1989 to protest its launch of the plutonium-powered Galileo spacecraft. Speculating that the teenage Julian Assange was one of the activists, the documentary then warps across two decades to focus on Assange and his WikiLeaks fueling the public rage against the meltdown of Iceland's three major commercial banks and the ensuing financial crisis.
The narrative builds as WikiLeaks releases video footage of two Reuters employees and unarmed civilians being gunned down in Baghdad by a U.S. Apache helicopter, while the pilots callously joke about it. Not a video game, the power of the image and audio sends chills down your spine. The media organization questions the military's insistence that the rules of engagement were followed, also noting that soldiers casually exchange CDs of such footage as though trading cards.
Gibney uses such "whistle blowing" to set the stage for a distressed Bradley Manning to release thousands of sensitive documents to WikiLeaks. Just as the prolific director carefully crafts the narrative, so does he cleverly depict the principal players as though in a fiction film. The self-assured Assange, with his shock of white hair and growing cockiness, emerges as the rising rock star of the Internet. On the other hand, Manning is represented as an almost invisible man, born where there were "more church pews than people" in Central Oklahoma. He's small in stature, an outsider grappling with gender-identity issues, and a broken soul deeply disturbed by the reports to which he had database access. Assange gets plenty of camera time. Manning's words are typed on a blank screen, as though being pecked out in solitude on his computer.
Although "We Steal Secrets" raises big questions about national security and freedom of information in the digital age, the documentary trivializes the serious nature of the content in several ways. Too much time is spent in speculation about the motivations of Assange and Manning. The approach may add layers to the "characters" and better engage viewers, but the presentation of the rape charges against Assange and the sexuality-and-anger issues of Manning sensationalize more than inform. Clips from popular culture, ranging from "WarGames" to "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," add unnecessary levity and pad the running time.
Quoting Siddhartha, the documentary notes that "Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon and the truth." The latter has yet to be revealed.
Rated R for some disturbing violent images, language and sexual material. Two hours, 10 minutes.
- Susan Tavernetti