Filmmaker Alex Gibney takes on the story of Wikileaks, in particular, the story of founder Julian Assange, who is currently an asylum seeker at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.
The trouble with telling a story about Wikileaks is that it is going to boil down to two things; the enigmatic and charismatic Julian Assange and his personal life, and the story of Bradley Manning, who was jailed for revealing US military secrets to Wikileaks, and this is exactly what ends up happening.
Alex Gibney follows the story chronologically, and in doing so, reveals that Julian Assange was known as a hacker in Australia 20 years ago, and has since developed an obsession with an open and honest society. So far so good, but when Assange was accused of sexual assault crimes in Sweden and fled the country, journalist James Ball – who worked with Assange at Wikileaks – insists that Assange became obsessed with his own secrecy, even going so far as to demand his colleagues sign non-disclosure agreements. Not quite the behaviour one would expect from the founder of a website determined to ‘steal secrets’.
At the other end of the story is Bradley Manning; a US soldier who sent information to Wikileaks before confiding in a stranger online and being turned in for his ‘crimes’. The film takes an odd turn as it delves deep into Manning’s personal life, and reveals that he was gay and his biggest concern about being discovered was that he would be identified in the media as ‘a boy’. The film dips in and out of Manning’s story at seemingly odd points, and while Manning (and now Edward Snowden) is perhaps the most famous whistleblower in the history of Wikileaks, his story and Assange’s do not always gel together that well.
Alex Gibney has gone underneath the veneer of an organisation in the public eye for both the work that Wikileaks does and the scandals surrounding its founder. The film tends to meander, losing some of the efficiency that Gibney is known for, and trying to push Manning and Assange’s stories together does not always work. In the end, instead of this film being the story of the organisation, it becomes the story of its founder. That, in itself, is interesting as it is claimed that Assange deliberately did not separate the professional from the allegations against him so that they looked to be an attack on Wikileaks and it seems almost impossible to separate the man from the work on screen.
Although wedging Manning and Assange’s stories together may not always work, an interesting contrast emerges; Julian Assange, rockstar activist who is cool, aloof and often contradicts himself, and Bradley Manning; a man who lacks the confidence of the man he confides in and appears lost and lonely in a world too big for him. It appears that Assange ends up the victim of his own hypocrisy and Manning the victim of his own naivety. Neither one perfect but one certainly more sympathetic than the other.
We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks is a fascinating film that uncovers a very different version of Julian Assange than the one we have seen so far. As with the organisation itself, the film becomes messy as it tries to untangle Assange from Wikileaks, but Gibney does show Assange in a less friendly light than we are used to, and even suggests that the assault cases in Sweden may not be as far fetched as first thought. Wedging Bradley Manning’s story into the film in so much detail was perhaps a mistake, although it gave a nice juxtaposition to the charismatic Assange, and the running time allows the narrative to meander in places, but the film is still a gripping watch that sheds a light on the man who overshadowed his own organisation.