With the hyper-polished and overlong We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, prolific documentarian Alex Gibney cribs from existing interviews, headlines, and media reports pertaining to the 2010 WikiLeaks scandal and re-appropriates them in a fashion fit for a Hollywood blockbuster. Making the assumption that the WikiLeaks controversy hasn’t already been well-publicized, Gibney starts from the beginning, explaining Julian Assange’s operation—releasing classified material to the public, government be damned—and the ensuing legal and media firestorm, when, with the help of army soldier Bradley Manning, WikiLeaks became ubiquitous thanks to a video of a helicopter attack, now commonly known as “Collateral Murder,” that led to the deaths of Iraqi civilians and two Reuters journalists.
Thematically akin to Gibney’s so-called exposé Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, which focused on the rise and fall of the cocky energy-company executives responsible for one of the biggest corporate bankruptcies in history, We Steal Secrets is unable to reconcile its intent with its own confused conclusions about the WikiLeaks debacle. The film often gets caught in the gray muck that plagues much of the debate, which boils down to those who believe it’s imperative to make government-guarded information available to the public and others who think disclosing secrets will compromise national security. Unsure whether to praise or indict Assange and Manning’s actions, Gibney’s vague survey of WikiLeaks’s backstory is further undermined by his inability to directly interview the two men he purports to profile (Assange declined to appear in the film and Manning was ostensibly unavailable due to his imprisonment).
Initially self-identified as David to the U.S. government’s Goliath, Assange—with his James Bond-villain swagger—is seen in media footage claiming that his main goal is to pursue a certain computer-centric creativity while “crushing bastards and defending victims.” Gibney is at first accepting of this egalitarian conceit, recounting Assange’s sly elusion of espionage and hacker criminal convictions after leaking info to The Guardian and The New York Times. The doc’s focus begins to shift, though, as Gibney covers how Assange’s reputation was further complicated by rape accusations and press outlets claiming that the publicly leaked information will lead to “blood on his hands.” Amid the fallout, Assange becomes increasingly bullheaded and petulant in interviews from 2010 to 2012, which Gibney frames as the man’s transformation from cunning whistleblower to self-satisfied celebrity.
Gibney’s morphing attitude toward Assange, however, is overshadowed by the intense sympathy he shows for Manning. Although WikiLeaks is a highly political subject, Gibney aims for the heart over the mind. Manning, who provided military videos and other data to WikiLeaks, is depicted as an alienated and desperate soul—an unstable, gender-conflicted gay soldier with a knack for computers. We Steal Secrets becomes an incongruous, back-and-forth two-pronged portrait of both men, but Gibney eschews juxtaposition, instead cramming in a cavalcade of passive news interviews of computer hacker Adrian Lamo, a sympathetic voice whom Manning communicated with online via instant messenger, disclosing information that would eventually be exposed by WikiLeaks.
Like WikiLeaks and Assange themselves, Gibney’s doc possesses an air of subversion, as if it’s on a crusade to take down “the Man,” and yet is so dressed up in flashy intrigue that it renders its content unhelpful and perilous, opting for bombast over clear truth-parsing. We Steal Secrets lacks perspective and still feels wrapped in secrets and lies; Gibney appears to be more concerned with superficial intrigue than complex politics, briskly regurgitating documentation and devoting more resources to creating snazzy graphics than providing deeper insight into his subjects.