Julian Assange must have wept with joy when news broke about Edward Snowden’s controversial NSA security leak. Or perhaps he was green-eyed at how Snowden’s disclosure truly characterised the poisoned chalice that the internet has become – as equally free and open as it is mass-monitored. Alex Gibney, veteran of the political doc, couldn’t have picked a more opportune and red-hot topic for a documentary, as he reviews the history of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange and the diplomatic maelstrom that followed the website’s many incendiary revelations. Sadly, We Steal Secrets (2013) is a film which gets lost in its data.
The first half pulls at many interesting strands, such as how the US and other digital superpowers now rely on acne-blighted whiz-kids to perform the most complex of hacks, yet ultimately these are the same kids who can tear down political institutions with the click of a button. This constant double-edged sword, in which young hackers can swallow whole the hand that feeds them, was a source of great tension throughout the early 2000s. After 9/11, the shift from private data to shared data meant that sensitive information could be accessed by staff with alarmingly low clearance levels.
The film’s second half wanders into territory that, while relevant to the film’s cause, drags us in directions that destabilise the narrative. A long period is spent on Bradley Manning and stresses the point of how he essentially found much to be disgusted at. But a leak is inherently characteristic of someone who thinks the public ought to know what’s going on behind closed doors, and so Gibney spends too long addressing things we already know. This isn’t a film about Manning, but is constantly at risk of becoming one. This digression also takes We Steal Secrets away from Gibney’s far more provocative and enlightening efforts, particularly Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) and Taxi to the Dark Side (2007).
Still, there are touches of similar intellect; is chaos the price for an uncontrolled and transparent online grid or will it abolish corruption absolutely? Assange isn’t exactly depicted with sympathy or admiration but rather as an emblem of the digital age; one man and his laptop taking down whole countries. Our capacity to deify Assange speaks to our love of idols and heroes as much as it does our genuine wish to see all information shared with the public.
Had Gibney tapped into something more esoteric or edifying about WikiLeaks, or even discovered a greater discourse about digital security and hacktivism, this documentary could have occupied the same illustrious domains as Enron and Taxi. Instead, Gibney’s We Steal Secrets provides us with a timeline, a curious if not plain investigation into the rise of WikiLeaks and its central players.
This review was originally published on 25 June, 2013 as part of our Edinburgh International Film Festival coverage.