Film review: ‘We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks’

Julian Assange and his organization come under scrutiny in the documentary "We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks" Credit: Focus World
Julian Assange and his organization come under scrutiny in the documentary “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks”
Credit: Focus World

‘We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks’
Director: Alex Gibney
Genre: Documentary
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

There’s rarely a hot topic filmmaker Alex Gibney won’t turn into an expository documentary. In the past — which is to say the past seven years — the absurdly prolific Gibney has tackled Enron, torture, Jack Abramoff, Eliot Spitzer and Catholic Church sex abuse, each cramming mega-scandals into digestible two-hour-plus packages. Working at such a fast clip can lead to simplicity, but he’s a heavy researcher, if one who’s a bit too married to a template format, and one who needs to relax on cutesy pop song cues that would make even Michael Moore flinch.

Though he goes easier on the latter issue, what’s both decent and vexing about Gibney’s work can be found in “We Steal Secrets,” the official doc on WikiLeaks, the online site that enjoyed a brief but loud life proliferating classified information passed on by anonymous sources. It’s a subject that can’t simply be summarized, requiring its teller to take a stance, both on the ethics of leaking and the company’s actions. Gibney has rounded up all of the organization’s members, save Julian Assange, the editor/spokesperson/silver fox stud who became the company’s public face, only to be taken down by sex scandals almost the instant he became a household name.

It’s not a liability that “Secrets” lacks Assange. It has plenty of other people to take up the slack, and Gibney, for what it’s worth, has never being the grilling type à la Errol Morris. But the lack of Assange creates a hole in the film, one that Gibney nevertheless fills with his own, almost certainly simplistic interpretation. In his reading, Assange is the good guy who became the bad guy, helping to expose necessary (or at least debatably necessary) secrets, only to turn secretive himself when accusations of sexual abuse came to light.

It’s on sturdier ground when inquiring into whether simply exposing the truth at all times isn’t inherently problematic. Assange’s viewpoint, others claim, was black-and-white, assuming that ethics never come to play when it comes to his company’s practices. Gibney’s film isn’t strictly about Assange, who disappears for long stretches, or even about WikiLeaks. It winds up tied, at least emotionally, to Bradley Manning, a sexually confused Iraq War soldier who leaked incriminating (though really just embarrassing) documents to WikiLeaks in what appears to be an act of self-destruction, only to wind up the fall guy. (He plead guilty to charges in February, and faces life in prison.) Gibney’s attempts to play with our emotions are thin and desperate, a flimsy attempt to tie up what is otherwise exhaustive research. But what good’s decent intel when the conclusion is weak?


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