It’s more than a little ironic that the title of Alex Gibney’s documentary on WikiLeaks and its driven founder Julian Assange comes from an interviewee who’s a complete outsider to the movement he represents—none other than Michael Hayden, ex-military intelligence specialist and CIA head. And in his words, “We Steal Secrets” refers not to the troublesome website Assange created to out official documents but to the US government and its various clandestine operations.
What Gibney’s film is concerned with, of course, is that same government’s anger over what Assange managed to accomplish during his brief heyday—the revelation of materials concerning the Iraq war and a huge cache of State Department documents that were seriously embarrassing to Washington. The discomfort—some would say damage—he and his confederates caused led to blowback, much rhetorical but, defenders would allege, at least some of it conspiratorial. What’s clear is that apart from any personal failings that were involved, Assange’s reaction to the criticism ruined not only his own reputation but the organization for which he spoke.
Gibney’s film covers all of this in a methodical, clear fashion that only occasionally descends into an unbecoming cutesiness (one could certainly have done without the reference to the “Star Trek” Koboyashi Maru scenario, for example). One could hardly call it concise, however; the documentary runs over two hours, which many viewers will consider a bit much, however intriguing they find the subject. But if nothing else, “We Steal Secrets” certainly works—as Gibney’s previous films on the Enron executives and Eliot Spitzer did—as a saga of self-destructive behavior by capable people whose judgment was perverted by smugness about their own principles.
What Gibney offers here falls into three fundamental parts. The first is basically a biography of Assange, from his efforts as youthful hacker in Australia (he’s suspected of involvement in the planting of a worm in NASA computers that was one of the earliest examples of “hacksterism”) through his flight from the law to evade charges of sexual harassment in Sweden. The problem here is that Assange is a pretty opaque character, very difficult to portray in much depth. What’s evident is that while putting forth the most extreme arguments in favor of governmental transparency—and developing clever means of circumventing officialdom’s efforts to keep a lid on important information—when confronted about his own actions, he resorted to extraordinary methods to suppress the truth, demanding non-disclosure agreements from his colleagues suspiciously like those that he condemns when others use them. That contradiction has decimated the ranks of volunteers who helped the whole WikiLeaks operation function, leaving it crippled and Assange under self-imposed house arrest in the embassy of a nation that has been accused of numerous human rights violations itself.
Intimately connected with that biography is the second major element of the film, an institutional biography of WikiLeaks itself, complete with graphics about how it operated, news footage, and excerpts from interviews with both Assange (often very guarded) and those who worked with him on it. It’s a sad tale of a movement that represented high motives—even if you consider them wrongheaded—brought down by one man’s inflated notion of self-importance.
And there’s a third major portion of the picture, dedicated to Bradley Manning, the troubled US army intelligence analyst who singlehandedly released all the data—on video as well as in print form—on the Iraq war to WikiLeaks. His story, handled with surprising delicacy, is intertwined with that of Adrian Lamo, the hacker whom he turned to for advice and sympathy but who ultimately turned him in to the authorities. Gibney offers a perceptive portrait of Lamo, whom he sketches in interview excerpts and found footage, showing him as conflicted and pained but also self-justifying.
Working with editor Andy Grieve, Gibney stitches all these aspects of the WikiLeaks sage together with his customary skill, in yet another of his documentary essays about how right the Greeks were in identifying the fatal flaw of hubris as the key to understanding the downfall of those who are—or at least believe themselves to be—exceptional.