History will forever link WikiLeaks and PFC Bradley Manning, and We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLinks will be one of the defining documents on this binary system, jointly responsible for history’s biggest leak of state secrets. And while writer/director Alex Gibney is not unsympathetic to individuals wanting to force a mendacious government into the light of day, he has no interest in varnishing the truth about those individuals.
We Steal Secrets opens with a 1989 hack-attack against NASA by an organization calling itself WANK. That may have been the moment when Julian Assange entered the world stage. But the 18-year-old’s career of “ethical hacking” was already underway by then, and two years later he was arrested for his activities. In 1995 plea bargain was struck. For the next decade he laid low, seemingly preparing for exactly what would come to pass once WikiLeaks was founded in 2006. A self-described “not-for-profit media organisation [whose] goal is to bring important news and information to the public [via] an innovative, secure and anonymous way for sources to leak information to our journalists (our electronic drop box).” In the seven years since its founding, WikiLeaks has facilitated the release for more suppressed information than has been otherwise released in world history.
That includes information suppressed by the U.S. government, ranging from video of Apache helicopter pilots gunning down unarmed Iraqi civilians and Reuters reporters to diplomatic cables to classified information documenting just how flagrantly the U.S. public was being lied to about what was happening in Afghanistan and Iraq. WikiLeaks obtained the vast majority of that information from 22-year-old Manning, a gender-confused, depressed mess of an intelligence analyst whose security clearance gave him a window into what, in an ill-advised online chat that would lead to his arrest, called “incredible things, awful things … things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC. […] and … its important that it gets out … i feel, for some bizarre reason[…] it might actually change something.”
Despite having no interview footage of Manning—the U.S. military isn’t in the habit of letting people in the brig talk to the press—We Steal Secrets is almost as much Manning’s film as it is Assange’s, with Gibney devoting a good deal of screen time to letting Manning’s chat logs speak for themselves. We come away with a picture of a lonely, fractured soldier having a terrible time of things in life just as he had a crisis of conscience about being “actively involved in something that i was completely against.” And despite whatever character attacks pundits and government officials have leveled against Manning, all evidence points to this being a guy who at least meant to serve the greater good.
Fundamentally, Assange seemed to be coming from the same place, but We Steal Secrets reveals him as a far more mixed bag, admirable and courageous in his willingness not to let governmental and corporate hugger-muggery get a free ride on his watch, while at the same time proving both overly paranoid and hypocritical enough to alienate many of those who believed enough in his mission to play crucial roles in WikiLeaks’s success. Assange comes off particularly badly in relation to the charges of sexual assault awaiting him in Sweden. While it seems all he may be guilty of is refusing to submit to a HIV/AIDS test for a couple of women with whom he had unprotected sex, apparently he is responsible for a campaign of misinformation in regards to what this is really all about.
As in Taxi to the Dark Side, his fantastic, harrowing, Academy Award-winning documentary about the U.S. military’s direct and indirect use of torture, Gibney strikes a solid balance between narrative, interview footage, and filmic style (Taxi includes a Yo La Tengo tune, while Secrets gets Radiohead into the mix). The result is more informational than engaging. But when you’ve got such a compelling subject, that’s all right.
We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks is playing for this week only at the Art Theatre of Long Beach (2025 E. 4th Street, LB 90804). For info on show times call 562.438.5435 or visit arttheatrelongbeach.com.
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