In Alex Gibney’s engrossing new documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, that organization’s founder, Julian Assange, comes off as complex, enigmatic, and narcissistic. By the end of the 130 minute running time, viewers will know much more about him and his passions yet still be stumped about whether he’s a hero, a megalomaniac, or a terrorist.
As the movie opens, we watch NASA struggle with a computer worm known as WANK (Worms Against Nuclear Killers). It not only threatens an impending Atlantis Space Shuttle launch but the inner core of NASA itself, forcing employees there to question how an agency founded on so much innovation and scientific creativity could be so vulnerable. Once the worm is traced to Melbourne, Australia, Julian Assange isn’t far behind.
Assange is first seen as a teenage computer nerd with a ponytail who soon enough lightens his hair and has it styled in seeming homage to some villain in a vintage 007 movie (probably played by someone like Rutger Hauer or Klaus Kinski). He has soon enough created WikiLeaks where he seeks a list of his “Most Wanted Leaks,” such as CIA detainee interrogation videos.
One of his unlikely cohorts is a military systems analyst Private First Class Bradley Manning, who links up with another noted hacker, Adrian Lemo. They initially converse about how his confused sexuality makes him a lonely pariah among his fellow soldiers. And that seems to be the motivation for his eventual release to WikiLeaks of 90,000 classified documents, including the alarming video of the killing of several civilians and journalists who were thought to be insurgents (cameras were mistaken for guns) by a frighteningly trigger happy Apache helicopter crew.
There are no real heroes in We Steal Secrets, nor any tangible villains, as they seem to keep shape-shifting from institutions to organizations to actual people. Though Manning isn’t interviewed here, Assange is, at length, including one chat during his house arrest outside London. Gibney makes a persuasive argument for freedom of the press while still holding off any judgment of Assange, whose only real victories here seem hollow and self-serving.
We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks | Dir. Alex Gibney | 2 hours 7 minutes | Showing at Tivoli Cinemas