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Saturday, September 21, 2013

Review: We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (2013)

* * *

Director: Alex Gibney

Power corrupts, particularly once it becomes the foundation in the creation of a cult of personality. Alex Gibney's We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks presents the complicated story of WikiLeaks as one of a potentially noble cause undone by the avarice of its mastermind. Although the film does attempt to view the matter in all its complexity, staunch Julian Assange supporters are unlikely to care for the film, which presents him as, alternately, a David out to beat Goliath, a persecuted and hunted scapegoat, and a hypocrite. Although I wouldn't call the film biased (if you separate the cause from the face of the cause, the film is fairly balanced), it's certainly no fan of Assange, who becomes the closest thing the film's story has to a villain. But, then, this isn't exactly a film about heroes, either.

We Steal Secrets begins with a tangential story regarding a hacker attack on NASA leading up to the Galileo spacecraft launch, an incident which may or may not have (probably did) involved a young Assange, putting special emphasis on the attack's quoting of a Midnight Oil song: "You talk of times of peace for all, and then prepare for war." After this quick prologue, the film moves on to its main narrative concern, charting the rise and fall of WikiLeaks and, to a lesser extent, the rise and fall of Assange. As I stated above, We Steal Secrets takes a number of different views of Assange, portraying him at the beginning of the film as a crusader with the noble goal of bringing the truth into the light, by the middle as a man so ruthlessly devoted to the cause that he's either unwilling or unable to recognize the potential human cost (in particular to Iraqis who aided the U.S. government in the region) of releasing information unchecked into the world, and by the end as a man who manipulates his image as a champion for truth to mask allegedly criminal actions, and attempts to enforce for his own benefit the kind of secrecy that he built his name trying to destroy. Assange does not come off particularly well in the film, but he doesn't come off as badly as you would think given how vociferously he's denounced the film as propaganda. We Steal Secrets reserves some of its time to discussing the sexual assault charges against Assange, and in particular to exploring both the argument that the charges are trumped up in order to discredit him, and the argument that he's attempted to discredit the charges by inextricably linking this personal issue to the professional issue of WikiLeaks; but the film's treatment of the topic is ultimately one of its weaknesses. It doesn't dig deep enough into the story to actually reveal anything new about it. It presents two theories, but doesn't really delve into any actual evidence, which sort of leaves you to wonder why it even bothered to touch on the subject in the first place.

Running parallel to Assange's story is that of Chelsea Manning, who is perhaps the only truly sympathetic figure left by the end of the film, depicted as someone caught between the rules of government and the rules of conscience, all while struggling with an identity crisis in the absence of support or understanding. There's something undeniably tragic about Manning, who appears here as a person on the verge of a psychological break, and is portrayed by the film as the party sacrificed and cast to the wolves while the more glamorous counterpart enjoys both martyrdom and the freedom to choose the terms and conditions of his confinement. It's a sad story and enraging when you consider the finer points - the amount of time held without formal charges, the use of "enhanced interrogation" techniques, and of course the nebulous territory between whistleblower and traitor which leaves Manning's cultural identity as complicated as her gender identity - and the film obviously has a great deal of sympathy for her, going so far as to give her the film's final word. What tends to get lost as the conversation about WikiLeaks shifts further and further towards Julian Assange as a person is what should really be at the heart of the matter: government transparency, and the right of citizens to know what their government is doing in their name.

Gibney is a skilled filmmaker and, while We Steal Secrets is an engaging and often insightful feature, it does ultimately leave something to be desired in terms of emotional heft. To be fair, of the story's two main players one cannot grant an interview and the other would not, so the film was in many ways doomed to an "at arm's length" view of the story, but that disconnect is definitely there. We Steal Secrets is a good film that does an excellent job at condensing a lot of information into a digestible narrative, but it doesn't amount to much more than that.

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