'We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks' is revealing and compelling
By James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
In a good documentary, one approach is to have a Big Issue (TM) explored with rigor, research and insight. At the same time, a good documentary can take the approach of focusing on intimate interpersonal human stories. But the best documentaries -- and Alex Gibney's latest, "We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks," is very good -- manage to do both.
"We Steal Secrets" never lets the point get faded into abstraction by the rarefied air of objective facts and figures, nor does it let the personal stories and human feelings get mired in the muddy ground of subjective personal experience. Gibney's documentary is about public policy and secret information, but it's also about private personalities and secret lives, with the film zooming from micro to macro and back again to turn a complex story we all knew from the news into a complex story it turns out we knew almost nothing about.
The basics of the story of WikiLeaks are simple: Julian Assange, an Australian computer programmer with a dislike of secrets had the idea that the digital age could be used not to foster transparency in Western Democracies and other governments, but instead to force it: He created an open-submission site, called WikiLeaks, that would propagate and distribute classified information and corporate secrets, all the while protecting the anonymity of the whistleblower who had sent them for publication. And yet, publishing requires content, which is where Bradley Manning comes in.
Manning was an Army private who worked with sensitive information; he also had access to the servers where more sensitive information was kept. And, as part of a series of personal and professional crises, Manning started sending information to WikiLeaks. Thousands and thousands of pages, plus video: everything from State Department secure cables about diplomacy to video and comments about the uglier realities of war.
Gibney knows how to make complex stories understandable and relatable, whether gun-crazed writers ("Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson") or religious scandal ("Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God"), political tragedies ("Taxi to the Dark Side) or the comedically cruel world of modern finance ("Casino Jack and the United States of Money," "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room"). It's frankly a little embarrassing that Gibney isn't a household-name documentarian like Michael Moore. Like Moore, Gibney has a sense of purpose and the ability to tell a compelling story, but unlike Moore he knows that he's the least interesting part of the story being told. Gibney's direction has flash and flair -- indeed, a little too much. We've all seen cyberspace depicted as a network of neon lines in darkness, while the on-screen depictions of chats the confused, isolated and depressed Manning had with the people he reached out and leaked to are almost the stuff of teenage AIM-chat melancholy.
Then again, Gibney does capture the human side of the story, from Assange facing suspicions of sexual assault to the ugly realization that Manning, in desperation, reached out to someone who would betray him. And the film's discussion of the aftereffects of Manning's revelations finds plenty of blame for both Democrats and Republicans, as a skinny, scared, sexually confused young man who wanted to expose one administration's war is held in solitary by a different administration for months that become years.
Gibney talks to experts who are -- or were -- part of the very intelligence apparatus Assange wanted to embarrass and shatter. One of them, explaining how intelligence and classified information are of crucial importance, gives the film its subtitle, explaining how "we" -- America -- steal secrets as part of statecraft in the name of safety. Gibney could not talk to Assange, in part because Assange was first under house arrest in Britain and then escaped to the Ecuadorian embassy, where he remains as an asylum seeker. Assange also demanded money to be interviewed. Assange's public crusade became inextricably tangled, financially and morally, with his private crimes. At the same time, it's interesting that when WikiLeaks worked with The Guardian, Der Spiegel and The New York Times, the backlash came to just him, a white-haired arrogant programmer with a strange past and a sordid present, and not those publications.
There's humor here, too: The kind of things you'd reject as ludicrous in a screenwriter's fiction are part and parcel of this story. Manning would download and store classified material pretending to be burning Lady Gaga CDs, singing "Telephone" as he sat in an Army base in Iraq. There's little moments from pop culture, too, like clips from "War Games" and other '80s computing films, and if the direction gets a little ... overly expressive (one scene recreating a journalist carrying secrets on a thumb drive through London is shot like an outtake from "Requiem for a Dream"), at least it's enthusiastic. "We Steal Secrets" isn't just a strong, long look at one of the most compelling stories of our modern age; it's a unblinking, inspiring examination of what needing to keep secrets -- and needing to not keep them -- can do to our institutions and to ourselves.
James Rocchi has written reviews and articles for print and online publications, including Total Film Magazine, the Toronto Star, IndieWire's The Playlist, Mother Jones, AMCtv.com and Cinematical.com. He's covered film festivals, including Sundance, Cannes, the Toronto International Film Festival, SXSW and Fantastic Fest. He's been an on-air reviewer for CBS-5 San Francisco and a reviewer and commentator for CNN, G4, TechTV and more. He lives in Los Angeles, which is both exactly and not at all like the movies suggest it is.