“We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks” tells its story largely by telling the story of Julian Assange, the Australian hacker-turned-activist who founded the WikiLeaks Web site in 2006 as a clearinghouse for information that others would have preferred to keep hidden. The documentary’s focus on Assange is not surprising. He’s the face of the organization, having become the focus of praise or blame — depending on your viewpoint — for the release of such material as secret Icelandic banking documents, U.S. diplomatic cables, Afghan war logs and the notorious video showing a helicopter attack on unarmed civilians by American soldiers in Baghdad.
But who is Assange? By the end of the film, the man is in hiding in London’s Embassy of Ecuador, having sought asylum to avoid pending sexual assault charges in Sweden and possible criminal prosecution in the United States. Is he, as some have called him, a “punk idealist” or a paranoid hypocrite? Traitor or hero? Self-aggrandizing egomaniac or self-effacing champion of free speech?
Filmmaker Alex Gibney (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”) tries to be fair — and succeeds — but most of what we learn about Assange isn’t especially flattering, even if you approve of what he has done in the name of openness. The portrait Gibney paints, by talking to supporters, detractors and former co-workers, is of an ideologue whose concerns about the theoretical access to unfettered data blinded him, in some cases, to the very real negative consequences of that access.
At best, Assange comes across as something of a noble jerk, a man who doesn’t care about embarrassing public figures who have done wrong. At worst, he comes across as a callous sociopath, someone who wouldn’t hesitate to publish unredacted details of military operations that might actually get people killed, only to lie about it after the fact by claiming that WikiLeaks had “systems” in place to prevent potentially harmful disclosures. There weren’t, according to several seemingly knowledgeable individuals, including Assange’s former WikiLeaks colleagues.
The most delicious irony of the film is that Assange — that champion of free information — has by the end of the film become as tight-lipped as a clam. As one interview subject notes, Assange recently began making associates sign a nondisclosure agreement that includes a multimillion-dollar penalty for leaking information that WikiLeaks hasn’t yet published.
Yet there’s another character in “We Steal Secrets” whose story looms almost as large as Assange’s. That’s Bradley Manning, the geeky U.S. Army private who is being court-martialed for leaking the helicopter video (dubbed “Collateral Murder”) and the State Department cables to Assange’s site. Gibney’s film also closely examines Manning’s motivations.
It’s hard to come away from “We Steal Secrets” with any conclusion other than this: As troubled as Manning evidently was — a military misfit who suffered from anxiety and gender-identity issues — his crime seems to have been that he genuinely cared too much. It’s arguable that he was a whistleblower in the purest sense of the word, someone inspired to right wrongs, even if his own actions weren’t legal.
Assange, on the other hand, seems guilty of caring too little — not just about Manning, but about the strangers that his actions might hurt.
Despite its wonky-Washington theme, “We Steal Secrets” ends up being a surprisingly soulful and, yes, even moving story of hubris, good intentions and mistakes. People cry in it, most notably Adrian Lamo, the hacker who turned Manning in.
There seems to be a lot of regret to go around in the sad story of WikiLeaks. To some degree, everyone involved admits to feeling it, except for Assange.
R. At AFI Silver Theatre. Contains violent images, obscenity and references to drugs and sexuality. 130 minutes.