Alex Gibney, the documentarian behind such films as Taxi to the Dark Side and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, is a phenomenal storyteller. That’s always been true about him, but it’s especially apparent in his new documentary, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (available On Demand now). Gibney neatly lays out the rise and fall of WikiLeaks and its charismatic and/or creepy founder cum figurehead, Australian hacker Julian Assange, but because he didn’t interview Assange directly (he wanted one million dollars from Gibney for an interview), Gibney relies more than ever on the elements of narrative to tell the WikiLeaks story. The end result is a documentary that is at times uneven but is always completely engrossing and fascinating, and surprisingly sensitive.
It would be easy to cast heroes and villains in the WikiLeaks story, to make Assange a martyr to his cause or turn him into a criminal bent on destruction, but Gibney does neither. In fact, though his portrait of Assange is ultimately not flattering, what’s remarkable about Secrets is how sensitive Gibney is to everyone involved in the story, from Assange to Bradley Manning, the Army private who actually leaked the information, to the former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden—who would make a natural villain in this story but instead comes off as likeable and interesting—to Adrian Lamo, the hacker who turned in Manning when he grew uncomfortable with the nature of some of the documents Manning leaked.
There are two conversations to be had about Manning and WikiLeaks and whistleblowing. One is political and about what, precisely, we have a right to know as citizens, and the other is about how Manning came to divulge state secrets to WikiLeaks followed by Assange’s downfall. Gibney largely glosses over the first in favor of the latter, but the film still asks questions and leaves the answers to the viewer. It isn’t taking the easy way out on a hard issue—this film will leave you with many questions and perhaps new opinions—it’s simply choosing the human element over the political.
Manning, currently in jail and on trial, was unavailable for interview but Lamo published their chat logs, which Gibney reproduces throughout the documentary. Manning comes across as sensitive, struggling with gender identification issues, and burdened past endurance by the nature of his work as an Army analyst. And so he ended up leaking hundreds of thousands of documents to WikiLeaks, believing people needed to know the “true cost of war”. Running parallel to Manning’s story is Assange’s, which begins as a quest for truth and transparency and ends in paranoia and conspiracy.
Without Assange speaking for himself, it’s inevitable that Gibney’s portrait ends up a little lopsided. The emphasis on WikiLeaks’ redaction policy is especially troublesome, and it would have been nice to hear from Assange on that topic, at least. Without Assange to defend himself, we’re left with only his former partners and collaborators stating over and over again that he didn’t care about redacting the names of people who could potentially be harmed as a result of leaking sensitive documents, and so the portrait begins to take on a sinister cast. It gets darker still as Gibney delves into the sexual assault charges levied in Sweden, and how that issue became conflated with his role as WikiLeaks’ leader and the publication of Manning’s files. It would have been nice to balance that with Assange’s side of the story and see if it illuminated or further muddied the issue.
Still, Gibney’s exploration of the WikiLeaks phenomenon and how the convictions of Bradley Manning and the charisma of Julian Assange drove it and ultimately crashed it is fascinating. It got me excited for the upcoming film The Fifth Estate because this is a story ripe for dramatization. But it’s also one that benefits from a rational and measured approach, which Gibney lays out neatly. It’s too bad he couldn’t interview Assange, but in the end, We Steal Secrets is no less compelling for the lack of a central voice. We’re left instead with an impression as imperfect as the world Bradley Manning tried—and perhaps ultimately failed—to change.