Prolific documentarian Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Freakonomics) turns his attention to WikiLeaks in We Steal Secrets, a detailed account of the secret-leaking website, its enigmatic founder Julian Assange and the supporting players in what has become one of the more fascinating and controversial debates of recent years.
It hasn’t been a long time since WikiLeaks was making headlines around the world on a daily basis, and most of us will remember the gist of the conflicts involved. Gibney nevertheless does a good job of keeping his material interesting and not overly familiar, weaving in visual flourishes and varying his topics of discussion. The problem he cannot solve is the fact that in the real world, this story is unfinished; as a result, the film feels like a lengthy trailer for a more in-depth feature five years down the line – albeit an interesting and thought provoking one.
The film’s central figure is inevitably Assange, though crucially it does not feature an interview with the man himself. This wouldn’t have felt like such a crucial omission if the film didn’t concern itself so much with trying to analyse him. His absence is at least explained, but it does mean that the film’s stronger elements come through in other areas, particularly in its haunting depiction of whistleblower Bradley Manning – still incarcerated in the US – and the tormented hacker who ultimately turned him in. The film is structured around a series of online conversations between the two – often displayed in simple text – that carry a certain profundity, even despite the film’s lack of conclusions. Theirs is a complex relationship: Manning, obviously troubled and struggling with his identity, found a strange sort of solace in Adrian Lamo’s online company. Lamo’s interior struggle following his decision to give Manning up to the authorities, meanwhile, is one of the most resonant human stories in the film.
Manning’s story comes across strongly because the film takes time to explore who he might have been as a person, but even so it still retains the speculative feeling that much of the film cannot shake off. The second half, in particular, is simply unable to draw conclusions – whether as a result of Assange’s ongoing tenure in the Ecuadorian embassy in England, the unresolved criminal charges hanging over him, or Bradley Manning’s uncertain position. In short, the film feels like it has arrived too soon; Gibney is happy to let his interviewees speculate on events, but the film feels speculative rather than incisive as a result.
That isn’t to say the film has nothing to say, however; far from it. This is still a well-made and thoughtful film. At over two hours, it could perhaps have been edited down slightly, but thanks to the interesting interviews and variation in storytelling techniques, it’s never boring. A bit less supposition and a bit more time spent looking at the fascinating debate about the public’s right (or lack of) to information – an idea forced into the limelight again recently by Edward Snowden – would have made We Steal Secrets a more essential work. As it stands, it’s an interesting film, but one that will surely be out of date not long after it’s time on screen is over, and which perhaps would’ve worked better as a television release.