Rating: R (some disturbing violent images, language, sexual material)
Length: 130 minutes
Release Date: May 24, 2013
Directed by: Alex Gibney
Stars: 2.5 out of 5
Many people associate the rise of WikiLeaks.org, the website that leaked thousands of classified government documents, with its founder, Julian Assange. Some don’t realize there’s much more to the story, including a lonely intelligence analyst and a computer hacker. “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks” (watch trailer) aims to delve into the complicated history of the site and tell the real story behind all those leaks and the controversy surrounding them.
The big focus of the story is Assange himself, who rose to prominence in 2009 when he released cables and documents about the Iceland banking scandal that brought the country to its financial knees and wiped out the savings and retirement accounts of many citizens. The film also recounts how Assange and other WikiLeaks workers released hundreds of thousands of pages of information about the United States military, including a video of an attack by U.S. soldiers on innocent Iraqis and journalists.
The film, directed by Alex Gibney, also recounts how Assange was able to get his hands on the infamous video clip and many other leaks. The culprit was Bradley Manning, a military private who was stationed in Iraq when he met hacker Adrian Lomo online. Lomo earned the trust of Manning, who was sent to Iraq despite the misgivings of his superior officer. In what might have been a moment of weakness, Manning admitted to Lomo he’d been the source of many of the WikiLeaks documents. Lomo went to the police and Manning was arrested, which helped government officials piece together exactly how the leaks occurred and how to prevent such leaks from happening in the future. The film then shifts its focus back to Assange, who was swiftly indicted on several charges by the U.S. government and accused of rape in Sweden. Gibney, no stranger to controversy, tackles these issues head-on and doesn’t flinch as he presents facts about the rape charges and criminal charges. Nothing is swept under the rug in this film, which makes it one of the more complete stories to date about WikiLeaks.
Assange currently lives in the UK in the Ecuadorian consulate because it’s one of the few places that offered legal refuge from all the arrest warrants he faces. While he has many supporters who believe him to be a freedom fighter of sorts, he has an equal amount of detractors who see him as an egotistical criminal. No matter which side viewers fall on, they’ll find a somewhat sympathetic take on what Assange was trying to do initially with WikiLeaks. Director Alex Gibney makes a compelling case for the usefulness of WikiLeaks while still not endorsing Assange. In fact, Gibney doesn’t spare Assange in the film, portraying him as an egotist who had a huge hand in the downfall of WikiLeaks. It’s a fairly balanced take on the entire saga of the infamous website that lets the audience draw their own conclusions.
Though Gibney doesn’t spare Assange’s character in the film, he does seem to sympathize quite a bit with Manning, who’s portrayed as a lost soul who didn’t seem to fit in anywhere. In a scripted film, a character like Manning would probably be the hero or antihero, but in the twisted world of “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks,” he’s instead one of the bad guys who stole secrets and then was betrayed by a hacker he met online. Since Manning sits in a military jail, there was no way to interview him for the film. Instead, Gibney does a great job of filling in all the blanks, even using screen shots of text messages sent between Manning and Lamo, the man who would eventually turn him in. Some archival footage and photos are also used to great effect, helping the audience fill in all the blanks in order to get a better vision of the entire story of WikiLeaks.
In fact, Gibney does an excellent job really telling the story of the doomed website, arguably even better than a degreed journalist would do. He leaves no stone unturned, using documents, interviews, photos, and even newspaper clippings to show the rise and fall of the controversial site and its creators. He even uses pop music by such luminaries as Lady Gaga and others to really help build a sense of the time and place when all this happened. The result is an excellent in-depth probe into WikiLeaks and what made it tick before it became a ticking time bomb.