I cannot recall offhand another documentary arriving in theaters at a more opportune time than We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks. Pfc. Bradley Manning’s trial kicks off this week at the exact same time a documentary charting his exposure of classified information to Julian Assange’s website opens for public consumption. The juxtaposition of current events and associated documentary film is perfect.
We Steal Secrets divides it time judiciously, Assange gets about 45%, Manning gets 45%, and various aspects concerning the U.S. classification system and the history of hacking divide the remaining 10%. Even though the title is The Story of WikiLeaks, there is a lot more going on here than just the website and its complex founder. Director Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side (2007), Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)) interviews former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden about the need to keep secrets and the classification czar under George W. Bush, J. William Leonard, who tries to explain the vast amount of information classified by the U.S. government.
Exposing government secrets was Julian Assange’s goal since early adulthood. Never proven, Assange was suspected of hacking NASA way back in 1989. Fast forward a few decades, Assange hit on the idea of a website where anyone could confidentially submit classified or proprietary information. WikiLeaks rocketed to fame first helping expose the corruption in the Icelandic banking system and then posted video footage of a U.S. AH-64 Apache helicopter mowing down reporters and children in Iraq. Gibney airs the footage on repeat for an extended amount of time and then adds close-up color photos of a kid with bullet holes through his head as the voices of the pilots congratulate each other on a job well done.
This is an effective transition to Bradley Manning. Gibney portrays Manning as a very confused, scared, and lonely individual. He questions his gender identity, grows disgusted at the carnage he sees from his remote Army base east of Baghdad, and starts funneling hundreds of thousands of classified Army and State Department reports to WikiLeaks. We Steal Secrets is extremely sympathetic to Manning. Gibney shows photos of a smiling Manning, who looks like a small teenager, while typing word for word some of his instant messages with the hacker who ultimately turns Manning into the authorities.
Gibney wants the audience to feel that all Manning needs is intense therapy and a one-way ticket out of the Army instead of his most likely life imprisonment sentence. The severe prison conditions which Manning was held under at Quantico are dissected and Michael Hayden shrugs off an uncomfortable explanation about those conditions by saying he had complete confidence in the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time. Whatever your opinion is about Manning’s crimes, Gibney will make you think through how Manning got there and where he is now.
Assange gets a different treatment. The interview subjects who know him all detail his transition from idealist and noble cause pursuer to paranoid fugitive. Still hiding away at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Assange asked for $1 million to appear in this documentary which explains why he does not appear for any Q & A. His legal troubles are thoroughly explored as a possible foreign government setup or honey trap, but more and more, Gibney paints Assange as a man who sees himself as a hero but becomes his own worst enemy. One man describes it as noble cause corruption, Assange is so sure of his righteousness that it does not matter what he does.
We Steal Secrets is extremely effective in presenting the facts about Julian Assange, WikiLeaks, and all of the odd situations which have occurred over the past year. Gibney’s sympathy for the plight of Bradley Manning is blatant and requires a bit more input from his detractors to achieve complete subject balance. Yet this film comes along at precisely the moment where anyone interested in the flow of information, social media’s power to break down walls, and the aftermath of the Assange/Manning saga should absolutely not wait until later to see it. Get yourself to a theater now.
Directed by: Alex Gibney
Starring: Julian Assange, Adrian Lamo, Bradley Manning, Michael Hayden, James Ball, Timothy Douglas Webster