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We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks Review

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Like most of prolific director Alex Gibney‘s documentaries, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks is serious-minded, but breezy and easily digested—it deserves much more than simply being called “the WikiLeaks movie.” Gibney has a nack for efficient storytelling that entertains as much as it informs, and his take on the enigmatic Julian Assange is a film that, for the most part, fires on all cylinders. You’ll notice a trend among Gibney’s filmography—the more obscure or unknown the story is, the more satisfying the film seems. In that respect, We Steal Secrets, as well-made as it is, ranks alongside something like Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, rather than upper-tier Gibney films like Mea Maxima Culpa or Taxi to the Dark Side. That said, Gibney is one of the leaders of his field, and even lesser Gibney is worthy of your time.

As you might expect from a film of this title, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks is about the start of the controversial website WikiLeaks and the rise and fall of its founder, Julian Assange. Gibney is nothing if not even-handed in his depiction of Assange—a hard attitude to have for a man some call a hero and others call a traitor and a sexual deviant, as well as a man who declined an on-camera interview for the film when Gibney wouldn’t pay him a $1 million appearance fee. But we join Assange’s story around the time WikiLeaks was first established. He and his site started getting noticed after leaking some secretive documents that showed the owners of Iceland’s Kaupthing Bank took large sums of money out of the bank just before it went under. The scandal caused a national uproar, and it gave Assange his first real taste of power.

It also gave him a home and an infrastructure. He set up shop in Iceland, where he was beloved by many and connected with hacker extraordinaire Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who’d soon become his #2. But it wasn’t until 2010 that WikiLeaks would become an internationally recognized brand, Assange an internationally recognized name. WikiLeaks got its hands on a video of American soldiers in Iraq shooting down a group that included several Iraqi civilians, two Reuters journalists, and two Iraqi children on their way to school (the children were wounded, the others killed). The tape came from an American soldier, Bradley Manning, who had a great deal of computer knowledge and expertise, and over the next year or so, Manning would leak thousands upon thousands of classified documents through WikiLeaks.

The tape was WikiLeaks’ biggest coup, and while it gave Assange a wider platform than ever before, it was also the beginning of the end for him. He became increasingly paranoid, even going so far as to let Domscheit-Berg go after accusing him of undermining their organization. Charges were brought against him in Sweden after two women came forward with similar stories about Assange deliberately ripping his condom during sex. He holed up in an English manor for some time before finding asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he remains today.

That’s the CliffsNotes version of We Steal Secrets, but Gibney’s film is packed with the kind of character details that make this much more fascinating than your average social studies lesson. Take Manning, for example. I never knew he was undergoing hormone therapy because he (sometimes) believed he was meant to be a woman. The digital relationship he forged with hacker Adrian Lamo is powerful. Manning was very much alone when he reached out to Lamo and told him everything. His new friend, however, recognized the potential problems he could face if he kept all of Manning’s secrets. Not only that, he wasn’t totally sure he believed in what Manning was doing. He breaks down late in the film, obviously torn up over the way he breached Manning’s trust. It can’t help, of course, knowing Manning was tortured while being held at Quantico—arguably the most egregious act committed by anyone in this entire saga.

As far as Assange goes, he’s never far from the action, and while he might not be the most complicated or interesting character in this sordid story, he’s certainly the instigator-in-chief. It’s not hard to see why Bill Condon saw fit to make this story into a narrative feature—this fall’s The Fifth Estate, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Assange. Whatever that film adds to the conversation, however, is just gravy. We Steal Secrets is a wholly successful documentary that’s worthy of both this larger-than-life tale and its director’s sterling filmography.

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