Sydney Film Festival Review: We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks (USA, 2013)

We Steal Secrets: The Story Of Wikileaks looks set to polarise audiences as much as the organisation’s founder, Julian Assange does. The documentary is the latest film from the Oscar-winning, Alex Gibney (Taxi To The Dark Side, Enron: the Smartest Guys In The Room). It attempts to paint a portrait of this organisation with snappy animation and a good musical soundtrack. But it has also made headlines as Wikileaks and Assange have criticised Gibney for omitting facts, misrepresenting others and employing selective editing. Gibney denies all this and says that Wikileaks have only viewed a transcript, not the complete film.

The story’s two main stars are Assange and Bradley Manning, the US soldier charged with “aiding the enemy”. His trial commenced on the 3rd of June this year and he faces 21 other charges for the act of whistle-blowing he allegedly performed. This allegedly involved releasing to Wikileaks 250,000 US embassy cables, Afghan and Iraq war logs, detainee assessments from Guantánamo Bay and videos of US attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan. This also includes the infamous and explosive “Collateral Murder Video”, which showed civilians and journalists being killed in Iraq. Neither Assange nor Manning was able to be interviewed for this documentary. Gibney claims that Assange had demanded $1 million for an interview and Wikileaks denies this.

Instead, the story of both of the men is told through stock footage, animations and a series of talking head interviews. The subjects include former, senior US security staff; hacker, Adrian Lamo;former Wikileaks spokesmen and volunteers; Manning’s friend; Manning’s supervisor; journalists; academics; a barrister from Wikileaks’ legal team; and a representative from the Australian Federal Police.

We Steal Secrets shows that this story is one complicated web. It tells how Wikileaks officially launched in 2007. In time, Assange’s star would rise and he would become known as the “Rock star hacker”. But it also shows his downfall, as Assange could face charges for alleged sex crimes in Sweden and is now living in the Ecuadorian embassy in London after being granted political asylum.

In the film, Manning is portrayed as a lonely, tragic hero- a computer nerd perfectionist who is incredibly bright and someone that was not cut out for the army. He is said to have been struggling with his identity at the time and was repulsed by the information he saw in the course of his job as an intelligence analyst. One of the talking heads says that Manning should’ve been discharged earlier, rather than given access to such top-secret and covert information.

The audience will feels lots of empathy for Manning, especially after they read and digest the excerpts from his web chats with Adrian Lamo (the hacker who would turn Manning in). It’s heartbreaking to see Manning’s confidence is broken by Lamo. Their correspondence is also used by Gibney to full, dramatic effect.

Assange doesn’t get off so lightly. He is initially portrayed as a noble, teen hacker using the handle, “Mendax” during his involvement in the Nortel affair. This earlier period was tackled in more depth in Underground: The Julian Assange Story. Although Wikileaks commenced in 2006, by 2010 Gibney claims that Assange had become corrupted by fame and success. His former associates at Wikileaks describe Assange in a less than glowing manner and even say he is an egomaniac.

We Steal Secrets is ultimately the tumultuous and dramatic story of power and influence about two renegades in the digital age. It offers important new information to this long and complex story and attempts to do so in as clear a manner as possible. Somewhere in the middle of all this the truth may be found, but for now this film packages the story as a gripping and sensational thriller-via-documentary. It also questions, “Are Julian Assange and Bradley Manning heroes or traitors?” But rather than answer this it throws up more questions, adds fire to an already lengthy debate and proves that you can’t really pigeonhole either man with such simplistic labels.

Review Score: TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Duration: 130 minutes.

This film screened as part of the Sydney Film Festival and opens nationally on 4th July 2013.

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