Julian Assange, the Australian celebrity-hacker behind WikiLeaks, is not among the people interviewed in We Steal Secrets: The Story Of WikiLeaks, Alex Gibney’s sprawling new primer on the document-disclosing website. Assange appears only in previously recorded news clips. According to Gibney, speaking in voiceover, that’s because the controversial figure demanded a whopping $1 million for the face time. But perhaps Assange also caught the scent of an exposé. More than just another of the prolific filmmaker’s streamlined treatise on an issue—though it functions that way as well—We Steal Secrets also amounts to a less-than-charitable thesis on Assange himself. Big thinkers and former colleagues make a number of damning cases against him, including that his expanding ego eventually eclipsed his ideals (“Somehow this anarchist I met became someone else,” one talking head claims), and that he deliberately linked opposition to his free-information crusade to the sexual-assault charges brought against him in 2010. (In the minds of many of his supporters, the criminal allegations became just another symptom of a global smear campaign.)
Truthfully, Assange’s absence from We Steal Secrets—regardless of the reasons for it—is a major liability, and not just because it prevents Gibney from truly engaging with his headline-grabbing subject. Without a strong personality at its center, the film often feels unbalanced, lurching awkwardly between basic infotainment concerns and a sharper, more specific agenda. As in much of his work, Gibney also leans a bit too heavily on flashy graphical interludes, such as a glowing, Matrix-like grid of networks, apparently designed for viewers unfamiliar with how the Internet works. Then again, the director’s accessible approach to conveying information is also one of his strong suits; those looking for a summary of the WikiLeaks phenomenon—from the big leaks to the major shifts in public perception about Assange and his cause—won’t find a more cleanly delineated version.
Staunchly pro-whistleblower, even as he acknowledges the dangers in mass declassification, Gibney does eventually align his sympathies with an individual: Bradley Manning, the young soldier arrested in May of 2010 for sharing damaging military documents with WikiLeaks. (He was sold out by fellow hacker Adrian Lamo, whom the filmmaker also treats with remarkable sensitivity.) Gibney’s most poignant and invasive move is to reprint the private correspondences between Lamo and Manning, the latter of whom is revealed to be a fragile, tragic figure coping with both gender confusion and the burden of the military’s dirtiest secrets. As in Taxi To The Dark Side, Gibney’s great doc about slain Afghan cabbie Dilawar, Manning’s story puts a human face on a big issue. It also compensates for the lack of Assange’s perspective. Mostly.