*** (out of four)
Most people probably know that for a few years in the late ’00s/early ’10s, rogue website WikiLeaks operated as the industry leader in exposing controversial political and military secrets. And that its Australian founder, Julian Assange, became a public figure of simultaneous admiration and scorn. Particularly in Washington and on the right side of the aisle, many saw him as reckless, even using the word “terrorist.” Others saw him as a hero, a digital Robin Hood in pursuit of the public good through maximum transparency.
Director Alex Gibney’s (“Catching Hell”) documentary “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks” takes on a challenge. He aims to cover the history and divisiveness of Assange’s site while exploring how the iconic man behind WikiLeaks went from a believer in government accountability and defending victims (and “crushing bastards”) to an elusive suspect of sexual assault and proponent of non-disclosure agreements among his allies. This, without Gibney seeming unjustly biased on either side.
Since Assange demanded $1 million for an interview or insisted that Gibney relay interviewee comments directly to Assange, the filmmaker couldn’t directly involve Mr. WikiLeaks in the film. The absence is notable and unfortunate, considering how many people ultimately speak out against a man initially hailed as fearless and important for his efforts to prevent large agencies from hiding from the public.
Gibney also struggles to wrangle the story of Bradley Manning, an Army intelligence analyst whose uncertainty about his identity may have affected his eagerness to release classified documents to the public and connect with Assange. Much like a hacker releasing information via the Internet, Gibney has a lot of threads to consider in “Secrets,” and he can’t always control all the information and its implications. (He indicts the military, which probably hates the countless documentaries [“The Tillman Story,” “The Invisible War”] that expose its many appalling faults, but doesn’t follow through on details of its secrecy and punishment.)
Assange certainly deserves to be taken to task for embracing the coy protectiveness he once railed against, but it’s unfair for Gibney to attack Assange for actions of his most extreme supporters. Regardless, the film recognizes compelling contradictions without attempting to answer complicated questions relevant to government and media types on a daily basis. Information is power, and “Secrets” is nothing if not a fascinating account of a man who loved stirring the pot until he was the one sitting in it.
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