‘We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks’:

May 21, 2013

Other documentarians may be more famous than Oscar-winner Alex Gibney, but there’s no one working right now who afflicts the comfortable with more energy and pointedness than Gibney.

“We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks” is Gibney’s second documentary in less than a year, after the upsetting and revealing “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God,” about the sex-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. In taking on the story of Julian Assange and his sometimes misguided career, Gibney keeps the focus where it should be – on the concerted efforts by the U.S. government to shroud its most unfortunate practices in secrecy.

Those secrets – about the way war was conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan by American forces – were at the center of Assange’s biggest triumph: the release of a bushel of war records and diplomatic cables that had been provided to him by Spec. Bradley Manning. The U.S. government reacted as though it had been stung by a bee, swatting at the perpetrators with rage beyond proportion.

As a result, Manning is sitting in jail, awaiting a military hearing that could result in the death penalty. (In a massive overreach, the U.S. Army wants to try him for giving aid to the enemy – in this case, the press.)

Assange, meanwhile, is under a kind of self-imposed house arrest, living in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he has taken asylum. Because, as Gibney shows, Assange put himself in legal jeopardy with an act of arrogance and ego, having to do with his refusal to wear a condom.

It’s maybe the most shocking fact in the film – that the man who would shame governments by revealing their secrets was brought low by his own unwillingness to reveal himself (through an HIV test).

Gibney is telling several stories here: that of Assange and his efforts to tear down the cyber-walls of secrecy to make government more transparent; that of Manning, a lowly Army intelligence worker who felt betrayed by his own country’s immoral acts (starting with that famous footage of an helicopter shooting up a Reuters news crew in Baghdad); and that of the Internet, and its effect on the transmission of information.

Are we really living in a post-secret era? Assange thinks so. He openly trolled for classified documents, advertising for specific information that he’d like to unleash in the public domain. Yet as Gibney (and Australian documentarian Mark Davis, who filmed Assange up-close-and-personal from before Wikileaks became a household word and whose footage Gibney licensed) shows, even at its height, Wikileaks amounted to fewer than a dozen people with laptops, bedeviling governments with their access to and willingness to unleash various government secrets.

Ultimately, Assange attracts Manning (who makes the mistake of trusting hacker Adrian Lamo, who turned him in). A young gay man in the military who feels bullied and threatened because of his sexuality, he also has a conscience about the intelligence that is passing through his station. Though he’s hardly an innocent (his emails indicate he understands the consequences of being caught), Manning is hardly a subversive. As Gibney shows (quoting Manning’s emails), he was aware he could get into trouble but was not prepared for the full weight of army justice (a phrase which, here, seems like an oxymoron) to fall on him.

Gibney needles a U.S. government so fearful of having its misconduct revealed that it is willing to bully anyone who tries. But he also examines Assange, who winds up a fugitive from Swedish police because he has unprotected sex with two women in Stockholm at the height of his fame. When he refuses to take an HIV test after one of the women complains, he is charged with rape and sexual assault, though the women agree that the sex was consensual.

But Assange gets so enamored of his own mystique that he conflates his troubles with the anger being directed at him from the U.S. Before long, he’s spouting the line that all of his Swedish troubles are being manipulated by the U.S., which he believes will snatch him if he returns to Sweden, then put him away at Guantanamo Bay.

Perhaps. Or perhaps his own missteps have tripped him up, robbing Wikileaks of its impact by putting the focus on his personal peccadilloes, instead of government secrets and misdeeds.

Assange comes across as both intelligent and self-absorbed. He doesn’t speak of himself in the third person, but he’s close. As a result, his effectiveness has been drained as he’s hiding out, even as his source, Manning, faces serious jail time and perhaps execution.

Gibney weaves all of this together in a way that not only compels you to keep watching but lets you come away with a thorough understanding of who did what and why. It’s an important story, one that “We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks” lays out in shocking detail.

Watch it – and then try to get worked up about any of the phony scandals that currently preoccupy the media. The real scandal is that this film – and the rest of Gibney’s oeuvre – isn’t required viewing for everyone.

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