In my review of Stories We Tell, I mentioned that one of my issues with documentary cinema is that sometimes it simply can’t quite grip in the way that a fiction film can. We Steal Secrets has no such issue, it is a complex and engaging tapestry of the controversial website, the enigmatic man behind it, and the ramifications it had on both Assange himself, and the world in general.
One of the main issues with all documentaries is the issue of balance, and the need to take one side and fight for it with all you’re worth (look no further than the films of Michael Moore to see how this is done, with varying degrees of success). We Steal Secrets manages to (for the most part) create a genuine balance, asking people from all different sides of the Wikileaks story for their opinions, which is perhaps enhanced by the fact that, with Assange as political refugee at the time of filming, that he could not be asked. It seems strangely fitting that, even now, Assange is perhaps the man behind the curtain once again.
We Steal Secrets is more than just, as the title suggests ‘the story of Wikileaks’. It looks at Assange, his colleagues, and, perhaps most interestingly, the story of Bradley Manning. Manning was a whistleblower, who leaked military secrets to Assange, and following on from both the leaking of secrets, and Manning’s own personal demons (which are touched on throughout), he was arrested and tortured (his trial is now nearing its conclusion). Across its two hours plus running time, We Steal Secrets deftly balances several elements of the same story, leading them all – Assange, Wikileaks and Manning – to their almost inevitable convergence.
Assange as a man quickly becomes the focus of the film, as we see his collaborations with The Guardian and The New York Times when Wikileaks was at the height of its fame (or perhaps infamy). From young hacker in Melbourne to public figure and the face of Wikileaks (and later a folk devil, deemed a terrorist by the American government), the journey, and indeed transformation of Assange is fascinating in its own right, and could have a film of its own (Assange is seemingly hot property in the film industry, with the trailer for the biopic The Fifth Estate being released today).
The one balance issue in We Steal Secrets is shown when the film touches on the sexual assault charges levelled against Assange (and perhaps becomes a bit too preoccupied with them during its final act), bringing on one of the woman who alleges that Assange sexually assaulted her. I understand the need to cover all elements of Assange’s story for the film, with the sexual assault charges playing quite a large part in that, but after keeping such a clear balance and impartiality, doing this just felt unnecessary and, quite frankly, cheap.
The film also contains some interesting visual touches, from showing IM text to illustrate the conversations Bradley Manning had with hackers, and later Assange himself, as well as melding archive footage and talking footage in order to explore all facets of the narrative. This largely works well, but sometimes, especially with some of the other visual flairs (which are a bit harder to explain on paper) it feels out of place, given it doesn’t serve much of a purpose. In fact, beyond the single balance issue, my only real gripe with We Steal Secrets was another move that felt cheap, the music that plays over the film’s final moments.
Gripping and intriguing, We Steal Secrets is a kaleidoscopic examination of secrets, their keepers and their thieves. Capturing the Zeitgeist almost uncomfortably well the impending end of Bradley Manning’s trial, Alex Gibney’s documentary, an almost perfectly balanced examination of Wikileaks, and the seemingly decaying values of its founder, is necessary viewing for all.