For those interested in the current Edward Snowden case, or indeed weighing up the various issues surrounding it, the release of this documentary couldn’t have been better timed. In fact, it’s so well timed that part of me is slightly suspicious. As to which side’s conspiracy the film is part of, though, is a tough one to work out – We Steal Secrets: The Story Of WikiLeaks is an often thought-provoking, intriguing, but frustratingly incomplete documentary which ultimately fails to shed light on its fascinating subject.
Covering several decades from the late 80s until now, We Steal Secrets aims to trace the history of Julian Assange and the formation of WikiLeaks – from his earliest days as a hacker without a cause in Australia, to its triumph in unleashing the Iraq dossier via the world press, to his current legal difficulties. The film succeeds on many, many levels. Director Alex Gibney has proven before he can tell a compelling story with Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God, and he does so once again here. You are sucked into this world of information, and to those who have only ever heard of WikiLeaks without really knowing who or what they are, the insight into the early days is worth the price of admission alone.
Watching what was essentially an operation run out of a front room in a rented house slowly but surely start to take on the corporate might of the banks, and then nation states themselves, is eye-opening and a great reflection on the new power the internet has enabled. And for a film that is essentially about file sharing online, mixed with talking heads, Gibney manages to continually make his movie visually exciting – a tough act indeed.
The access Gibney has gained is truly impressive. The community and key early members of WikiLeaks are all there. So too are the forces opposed to them – former CIA and NSA Director Michael Hayden provides some of the film’s best sound-bites. Gibney also secures an interview with one of Assange’s rape accusers – who for many people will be putting her side of the story across for the first time. It is also incredibly interesting to note that the film strikes a markedly anti-Assange line (Assange himself has publicly denounced the documentary), and all but states he is an egotist obsessed with building a cult of personality around himself. While I found this fascinating, and indeed worthy of a film in itself, it feels like a side-show to what Gibney is aiming for in this doc.
But while the story of WikiLeaks and what it stands for is of powerful interest, the film’s emotional and dramatic core is the journey of Bradley Manning from social misfit, to tech soldier, to eventual whistle-blower and prisoner. Manning is a hugely sympathetic character here, whose private life has a huge bearing on his professional conduct and eventual actions. While you may or may not believe what he did was morally right when he released sensitive information about the atrocities being committed by US forces in Iraq, there’s no denying that it was an act of bravery to follow his conscience – and one he is paying for dearly.
However, making Assange and Manning the key figures in the documentary proves Gibney’s ultimate undoing. Neither are featured in interviews and able to put their side of the story across, which creates a gaping hole at the centre of the film. We are left with what are essentially second-hand accounts about these two and their actions. While they may be incredibly well-informed accounts, it still creates a biased picture, and sets up the film as one with an agenda and no right to reply – a tricky situation for any documentary to be in. In this same way, the film often asks difficult questions about the moral implications of WikiLeaks’ actions, often to those involved with the decision making. However, when it comes to interrogating the morality and rights of ‘the man’, the film remains notably silent – accepting instead the words of people like the NSA’s Hayden rather than challenging them. Yes, we may get a voiceover disapproving of US army actions, but it’s not quite the same.
On reflection, We Steal Secrets is a highly enjoyable journey through the history of WikiLeaks, but one which perhaps sits a little too on the cusp of events to truly reflect on their implications – the ongoing Snowden revelations make this clear. With no distance, and no words from Manning or Assange, the film makes several assumptions which you feel may just be wide of the mark. However, it remains a well-made documentary about one of the most intriguing organisations and personalities of the 21st century.
We Steal Secrets: The Story Of WikiLeaks is out in UK cinemas now.
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