The UK release of Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (2013) could hardly be more timely in light of whistleblower Edward Snowden’s recent revelations concerning the hi-tech US spying programme, Prism. At the core of this highly pertinent documentary lies the very ethics of journalism, focusing on two enigmatic figures that have shaped the way we think about the internet and the disturbing behaviour of Western superpowers. At the heart of this story is the inscrutable figure of Julian Assange – the founding father of website WikiLeaks – who is currently self-exiled within London’s Ecuadorian embassy.
Pre-WikiLeaks, Assange (not interviewed here) was a geeky and brilliant hacker, out to “crush bastards” and “protect victims”. Back in the 1980s, the Australian-born, flaxen-haired computer whizz spent his days breaking into NASA servers for jollies – but with a political bent. Then, in 2006, Assange founded WikiLeaks, a site dedicated to exposing classified information for wider public consumption. It was in March of 2010 that the site went viral with the release of a 32-page document provided by the lonely and tragic US intelligence officer, Bradley Manning.
Manning’s sacrificial act effectively blew the lid on the actions of the American military during the (ongoing) second Iraq conflict. It’s this crucial moment that forms the nucleus of Gibney’s We Steal Secrets, which goes on to explore the lives of Assange and Manning, as well as the wider global context that surrounds them. As is typically the case with a documentary from the prolific Gibney the runtime is lengthy, but the subject is handled with such a strong sense of craft that it grips, provokes and intrigues at all times – even if it occasionally teeters on the edge of sensationalism. Gibney remains predominantly objective, seemingly unwilling to turn Assange into Robin Hood-like figure (as would perhaps be his personal preference).
Broad in scope, Gibney cuts to the quick of Assange and Manning’s motivations, with both men having us believe that their actions are solely compelled by a strong sense of righteousness; however, the story is far more complex than that. Manning, like Assange, has multiple motivations for his allegedly treasonous exploits. When Manning leaked reams of US intelligence, it appeared to be an act born out of both morality and a deep sense of isolation. Gibney is clearly keen to capture this oddball figure-come-hero, although the filmmaker does perhaps linger on Manning’s penchant for cross-dressing and how ill-fitted he was to military life.
Assange himself appears less of a tragic figure throughout, due in part to his air of arrogance and also by how clearly bewitched he has become by the perks of both infamy and celebrity – even at the expense of ethics (Ecuador hardly has the greatest human rights track record). Not without its faults, Gibney’s We Steal Secrets is a documentary that offers nothing less than a comprehensive, eloquent and provocative analysis of one of the most controversial figures of the information age.