We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks (2013)

(On Cable TV, August 2015) You could ask why anyone should watch a documentary about a story that’s both not that old (The Wikileaks saga peaked in 2009-2011), and so well-covered just about everywhere (starting with Wikipedia’s interminable articles on Wikileaks, Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning) that another take on the same events would be redundant.  But Alex Gibney is a top-level documentarian, and he understands that the art of the doc is largely based on selection of material and emotional impact.  So it is that We Steal Secrets structures its material in a way that makes a complex issue relatively clear, and does amazing things in presenting Instant Messenger chats: The use of pauses, selective highlight of text and isolated sentence fragments in exceptionally powerful.  Roughly 30 minutes of the 2-hour film is made of computer-animated segments, providing a visual unity to the film that could have been diffused had it been a straight-up succession of talking heads.  While Assange himself is typically missing from the film’s roster (he’s not really the type to contribute to fair-minded depictions of him or his activities, as proven by his over-the-top reaction to The Fifth Estate and other examinations) and while Manning is obviously absent by dint of being detained, We Leak Secrets thrives on a series of good interview subjects.  While some of the remote psychoanalysis of Assange and Manning is a bit exasperating, most of the talking heads say interesting things –perhaps the most interesting of them being ex-CIA head Michael Hayden, who says things you may not expect from a man of his experience. (The title of the film is his.) Otherwise, We Steal Secrets is generally even-handed, giving voice to dissenting, even fringe opinions, while trying to be as clear as possible about its topic.  Heartbreak is inevitable, especially as the film delves into Manning’s crushing isolation, the actions of Adrian Lamo and, later on, a testimony by one of the woman who accused Assange of sexual impropriety.  I’ve been casually following the Wikileaks story for a while, and couldn’t find inaccuracies in the finished product.  (Wikileaks posted a detailed rebuttal, but Assange’s thin skin is legendary and he’ll be forever unsatisfied by anything short of hagiography.)  I have seldom been disappointed by a Gibney documentary yet, and if We Steal Secrets seems to be his most obvious topic yet, it’s as slick and fascinating as any of his other films.  As a first-pass attempt at history-making, it seems fairer than most… although I believe that the final word on Wikileaks, Assange and Manning is yet to come.  

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