Review: Provocative Doc ‘We Steal Secrets: The Story Of WikiLeaks’ Is Essential Immediate Viewing

Review: Provocative Doc 'We Steal Secrets: The Story Of WikiLeaks' Is Essential Immediate Viewing
Review: Provocative Doc 'We Steal Secrets: The Story Of WikiLeaks' Is Essential Immediate Viewing

Titles can be sticky, none
moreso than “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks.” The “we” mentioned
could be speaking in first-person perspective in regards to the muckracking
online collective, which helped power the biggest security breach in government
history. Then again, is the story of WikiLeaks anything other than our story?
The story of anyone online who’s ever wanted to know more, who ever wanted to
remove the veil of secrecy? If anything, director Alex Gibney might have shot
himself in the foot: he could never begin to grasp the magnitude of our
collective societal curiosity that has helped bring down walls during the
current administration.

Nevertheless, “We Steal Secrets”
seems unfinished (fair enough, given it tells a story that’s still in progress), but never inadequate, doubling back to present an account on
the beginnings of WikiLeaks. This involves perusing the considerable intellect
and damning vanity of Julian Assange, who has smartly denounced this doc on the
grounds of illegitimacy, given that he’s a man with a definite image to
protect. “We Steal Secrets” is actually mostly favorable towards Assange as far
as his impact on societies ranging from earlier free speech battles. But it
also doesn’t fail to acknowledge Assange’s love of the spotlight, his
theatrical intelligence allowing for grandiose statements about freedom and the
illusory notion that he is “one of the people.” Worth noting: Assange’s lack of
approval for this doc comes without him having seen or participated in it.

“We Steal Secrets” casts enough
a wide net, but its principal points of focus seem to be Assange and Pvt. Bradley Manning,
who gave up a surplus of secrets to WikiLeaks simply because he had no one else to
reach out towards. The media has done an excellent job of either eulogizing or
demonizing Manning without the public knowing much, so it doesn’t take a whole
lot to humanize him. And what is discovered through text and deeper
investigation is that Manning, considered treasonous by some, was not only a
very real, very complex person, but also one that acted while in a deep
emotional pain.

Gibney’s doc isn’t foolish or
emotional enough to suggest Manning’s condition is a cause-and-effect of his
leak, but it forces us to consider the presence of a lonely, disillusioned
loner with a confused identity surrounded not only by people with no common
interests, but also a “What happens in Kabul stays in Kabul” attitude towards
wrongdoing. His wizardry in the field of computers is seen as his only conduit,
technology providing this loner with his only means of communication. It’s
damning not only that the military wouldn’t be proactive as far as Manning’s
depression and introversion (his sexuality in particular is something he’s
discovered is a bit more fluid than he expected), but in allowing someone with
Manning’s skill level to access military technology and bandwidth to release
these damaging documents and files.

His conversations with a
wayward hacker reveal not only someone deeply interested in the secrets behind
what could have been considered war crimes (we see some harrowing, inexcusably
sloppy military footage that shows the deaths of innocents), but also two
lonely people floating in cyberspace: when Manning confesses his homosexuality
to his confidante, his “me too” is touching, suggesting that Manning had
finally found the closest thing to a kindred spirit. Which makes it all the
more heartbreaking when that paranoid net junkie, Adrian Lamo, turned Manning
in for his information cache. Knowing that Manning was eventually captured and
detained by the U.S. government for a full year without a trial or specific charge lends the
film the chilling air that Lamo probably saved his own skin (Manning finally plead guilty to ten counts in court this February).

“We Steal Secrets” is paced
with a level of even-headed righteous indignation, like a late-period album
from a punk stalwart. It’s impossible to not feel the gravity of what’s at
stake, as the film emphasizes not the public response (which was nil, following
the first week of outrage), nor the wayward punditry (thank God) but rather the
bare essentials. The greater focus lies on the footage of slain innocents at
the hands of soldiers, collateral damage of which there is no excuse. Gibney
wisely avoids the trap a lesser filmmaker would seek, an “even-handed” approach
to the interviews that would allow for some suited military representative to find
a buzzword-ish explanation for the lost lives. Of course, they can’t seem to
help themselves: one Rumsfeldian rep verbally wallpapers over the deaths of
innocents by discussing the importance of secrecy to the government, in a
conversational manner that suggests the sort of cold-bloodedness you only see
in superhero movies.

Still, Gibney’s film shakes and
swirls with a pop rhythm: a memorable bit reveals that Manning procured a
number of confidential files while blaring Lady Gaga’s “Telephone,” a
revelation that merits much further unpacking. And Gibney seems to understand,
without judging, the egotism that results in Assange’s and Manning’s actions,
as the latter had such little control over his own world that the WikiLeaks correspondence
gave his attitude a considerable boost. Information is power, the film argues,
and that power can often imbue even the smallest ant enough to save his life.
Despite a lack of access to Manning and Assange, “We Steal Secrets” is a vital
document of a pivotal moment in world history that we’re still experiencing as
we speak. [A-]

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