The prolific Alex Gibney turns his very busy eye onto Wikileaks with We Steal Secrets. Tracing root causes back to before September 11, Gibney's film explores how Chelsea Manning was able to effortlessly transmit millions of classified documents to an Australian hacker with no interest in redacting them for safety. It also functions as a biography of Manning and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, addressing everything from their childhoods to their present legal issues. Though Gibney does not get either principal on camera, he does paint a clear and (mostly) fair picture of both through their instant messages, personal and public footage, and copious interviews with coworkers and acquaintances. The finished product is another win for Gibney, a thorough investigation on a small scale that finds the larger implications for the world.
After some brief history and introductions, We Steal Secrets gets into tracing the step-by-step process of Wikileaks's greatest successes. With the verve and tension of a spy thriller, Gibney chronicles the back and forth between Assange, Manning, and third hacker Adrian Lamo, followed by all-night debates on what to do with the raw data Manning has delivered to Wikileaks. Once everything gets out into the ether, the media split between castigating Assange as a reckless traitor or praising him as a courageous whistleblower. The criticism hardens his resolve and the adulation inflates his ego.
Gibney is much kinder to Manning than Assange. Painting the army private Manning as a deeply unhappy individual, conflicted over her gender and her work, We Steal Secrets has a lot of sympathy for her, emphasizing that she never asked for money and was earnest in her moral distaste for the reports and intelligence that came across her desk. With his thin frame and giant eyes, Manning does not appear suited for the military, and analysts that served with her describe an isolated loner amidst the masculine military culture, even in a mixed-gender IT group. Chat logs between Manning and Lamo depict a person near suicide, desperate for any kind of companionship and spiritually wounded by the acts of his government. Assange, on the other hand, is depicted as self-aggrandizing, using his fame for sexual conquest and speaking arrangements while Manning languishes in solitary confinement. He dismisses efforts to shield Afghani informants in his first big data dump, condemning them as collaborators who deserve whatever happens to them. Though no evidence has been found that the Wikileaks disclosures resulted in loss of life, Assange's coldness in the face of colleague's arguing for discretion hangs over the rest of the film. An unflattering scene of Assange clumsily dancing in a nightclub doesn't help in his depiction, and is beneath Gibney. Assange already comes off as supremely arrogant and narcissistic, and doesn't need any extra diminishment.
Assange's legal troubles, ostensibly unrelated to his work with Wikileaks, form a big part of the latter half of the film. Currently stuck in Ecuador, hiding from Swedish extradition on charges of sexual misconduct, Assange mixes his personal life and his professional life in a distasteful way. In his mind, the charges are inextricably linked, and fundraising for Wikileaks has been used to pay personal lawyers. He is Wikileaks, and Wikileaks is him. Gibney gets respectful interviews with Assange's accusers, and they appear perfectly reasonable witnesses who Assange ignored until they were left with no other recourse than the police. He also asks his employees to sign non-disclosure agreements, a puzzling development from a man who insists that all information should be public. The charges ultimately lead to the dissolution of Wikileaks as it had been, supplanted in the news by Edward Snowden and in the Internet by groups like Anonymous, who eschew a charismatic leader, perhaps because of Assange's example.
The tragedy of We Steal Secrets is that it's instigated by a government that would continue to needlessly keep so much from its citizens. Gibney traces the explosion of secrecy culture to shortly after 9/11, when the intelligence ethos went from need-to-know to need-to-share. More eyes are on intelligence, but everything gets classified, citizens know less, and it's more difficult for whistleblowers to escape prosecution. Wikileaks burst into the national consciousness with footage from a gunship, not exactly something integral to national security. That the journalists trusted by Edward Snowden have done such a better job than Assange at disseminating information shows that people are paying attention and learning from his mistakes. Meanwhile, Manning will likely spend decades in prison, after a period of near-certain torture by his guards and a State department report that found no lasting damage to the US or its interests from his actions. Gibney's documentary is alternately empathetic and suspicious towards its complicated principals, while also slotting them into a broader picture. As one of his better films, We Steal Secrets is a vital and valuable deconstruction of those who would attempt to pierce the national security state. B+