Alex Gibney isn’t just today’s most important and prolific documentary filmmaker; he’s a force of nature. His films have gone a long way in changing the way we talk about a variety of subjects, and when he takes on a new issue, the world takes notice. Whether he’s tackling the “War on Terror” in his Oscar-nominated Taxi to the Dark Side, or white-collar crime in Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Gibney has always found the personal angle in every major scandal. It’s a skill that makes him uniquely suited for an exploration of the deeply polarizing hero/traitor (depending on your perspective!) Julian Assange in the fascinating We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks.
There are a lot of movies centered on the Australian hacker-turned-activist, but Gibney’s film is neither hero worship (like the Australian film Underground is) nor a denouncement of his activities. Gibney takes a balanced, measured approach, allowing the facts to lead wherever they may. Assange’s story begins in the 1980s when, going under the moniker of Mendax, he and a group of like-minded activists dropped a nasty virus on NASA just before a high-profile shuttle launch. It was merely a test case, but it was the root of what became a global crusade with the goal of “crushing bastards”. The bastards in question were basically any government committing terrible deeds privately, while publicly denouncing those very same actions. Assange considered himself a “noble liar”, basically living by the rule of “the ends justifying the means”.
At the outset, one can see Gibney’s admiration of Assange, the man who proclaimed to be a defender of the voiceless, valuing free movement of information and government accountability above all else. It’s hard not to root for him, with his silver hair and geeky chic charm; he comes across like a nerd superhero, fighting the good fight against evil, secretive shadow organizations. When WikiLeaks was formed, it became the go-to site for whistle-blowers, a digital “drop box” where they could discreetly reveal confidential information. It was through this that WikiLeaks received its first major leak regarding the Icelandic financial crisis. But it was the release of U.S. military cables regarding the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, including the infamous footage of an American gunship coldly killing what turned out to be a handful of innocent Iraqis, children, and a couple of Reuters reporters. The ensuing scandal thrust WikiLeaks and Assange into the national spotlight, where the cracks began to form in his altruistic armor.
It isn’t long before he’s become a paranoid wreck, his narcissism that perhaps had always been there breaking through and coloring his judgment. As Assange begins to turn against his own ideals, believing too much in his own hype, Gibney doesn’t take the opportunity to turn this into a cinematic hit piece. He continues to stay passive as sexual assault scandals and other legal entanglements engulf Assange until he’s become a shell of the man he once was. The story of Assange’s rise and subsequent fall has been well-documented in the media, but it’s the other half of the story that many will walk into clean. That story is of Bradley Manning, the meek, quiet Army officer responsible for leaking the secret government cables to WikiLeaks. If Gibney’s admiration of Assange ultimately turns to anger, the prevailing response to Manning is that of pity. A lost soul with a crushing personal secret and nobody to share it with, Manning relied on the cold comfort of the Internet to unburden his soul. Digital recreations of his private conversations with fellow hacker Adrian Lamo reveal his inner anguish, providing a heartbreaking window into his mindset that we’ve never seen before. Ironically, it was Manning’s desperate moment of trust, revealing his secrets to Lamo, which would prove his undoing.
The stories of Manning and Assange comprise a fascinating, ambitious exploration of two information gate-keepers who were corrupted and ruined by the power they held. Gibney has struck gold yet again. We Steal Secrets is an important, defining work about information security in a post-9/11 digital age.