SIFF Film Review – We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks
I can’t imagine there is anyone out there who hasn’t heard of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, or Bradley Manning, but just in case, here’s a little background. WikiLeaks is a website founded by Australian hacker/activist Julian Assange in 2006. Assange’s mission is to create transparency where there is none, and WikiLeaks provides a forum for whistleblowers to make public their materials in an anonymous manner. WikiLeaks first came to general public notice after publishing documents pertaining to the Icelandic banking collapse, but gained world-wide attention (or notoriety) after releasing documents related to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The source for these documents was Private First Class Bradley Manning, who also released 250,000 diplomatic cables that WikiLeaks revealed to the public in partnership with The New York Times and The Guardian. Assange and Manning have been labeled both heroes and terrorists, and the new film We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, directed by Alex Gibney and showing at the Seattle International Film Festival, tells the tale of WikiLeaks through Assange’s and Manning’s stories.
Both men appear to be pretty complex. I’ve always viewed Assange with what I consider to be a healthy amount of skepticism; I’m sure his belief in transparency comes from an honest place, but it seems likely that anyone who thrusts himself so far into the public sphere might have some other agenda, even if it is just the need to feed his own ego. Nothing I saw in We Steal Secrets swayed me from that opinion. It becomes obvious during the film that Assange’s own motivations complicate the task of WikiLeaks, and in the end, overshadow its mission. Manning is portrayed as a lonely and confused young man who is disturbed by the secrets that he uncovers, and then chooses to take action. Much is made about his gender confusion and his homosexuality in an aggressively heterosexual setting, and regardless of how much that actually affected his decision-making, it has overshadowed how the public views him.
This film does a lot of things well, especially with telling the human side of the story. We’re not just dealing with events here, but personalities as well, and Gibney does a very good job of concealing his thoughts about the players. It was about halfway through the film before I realized the film was not going to take a pro-Assange stance. Gibney’s bias seems to be similar to mine—in favor of transparency, but keeping Assange’s faults in mind. And there are some. Big ones, it turns out. Over time, he has managed to alienate many of the people closest to him, and managed to conflate his personal issues (some sexual assault-type charges in Sweden that I am still sort of unclear on) with attacks on WikiLeaks. He seems to have always been a pretty paranoid guy, and while he has some excuse for it now, his feelings of persecution seem to have taken over the WikiLeaks agenda.
But Gibney always views Assange with compassion, as he does everyone in the film. No one is made to look the fool, and even though Bradley Manning is in no position to speak for himself, the film uses his chats and emails to allow his voice to be heard. The person who comes off worst in this film is Adrian Lamo, Manning’s online friend who would later turn him in to the feds. Lamo appears to be on some sort of medication in the interviews and speaks somewhat awkwardly (and talks about Star Trek a little too much), but even he is allowed to express complicated feelings about what he has done.
As good as this film is—and it’s very good—there are a few things it could have done better. It does give some weight to those who think WikiLeaks is aiding the enemy and creating a dangerous situation at home and abroad. But they only give generalities, and I’d like to see some specifics called out here. I can buy the argument that a big data dump of this type contains things that might compromise national security, but I’d like some details, please. I also feel that too much emphasis was placed on Manning’s gender issues without specific proof that they affected his decision-making abilities. Yeah, he was a pretty unhappy and confused young person. But he also saw a lot of things that made him feel morally compromised. It is entirely possible that his unhappiness was not the reason he leaked the documents. Correlation is not causation, and the fact that he cannot be currently interviewed, due to his incarceration, does hurt this film. Nonetheless, it’s good, and is something anyone concerned about government transparency should see. (Even if you aren’t, you should see it anyway. So you can become concerned.)
Final Grade: A-
Also, be sure to check out our interview with director Alex Gibney.