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Wednesday, June 5, 2013


Alex Gibney at Film Society of Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater
Photo credit: Joshua Handler
2013, 130 minutes
Rated R for some disturbing violent images, language and sexual material

Review by Joshua Handler

This is a review of both the film, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks and the Q&A with director Alex Gibney which was held at Film Society of Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater.

Oscar-winner Alex Gibney's (Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) new documentary, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks is a compelling and provocative documentary that is lacking the passion and power that some recent documentaries have had (the Tribeca award-winner Let the Fire Burn is a prime example).  Nonetheless, this is a story that needs to be told and Gibney is a great filmmaker to make this film because he is not afraid to put his own view on WikiLeaks into the film.

The story starts with Bradley Manning, a gender confused, disillusioned young soldier who discovers that he has access to hundreds of thousands of classified government files and leaks them to Adrian Lamo, a hacker.  Eventually, after a long series of events, they find their way to WikiLeaks, a group that leaks secret government information by  allowing people to submit secret documents and information anonymously.  WikiLeaks is run by Australian hacker Julian Assange.

With this as the launching point, Gibney explores Manning, Lamo, and Assange and their involvement with the WikiLeaks scandal.  Gibney makes this movie interesting for the entire 130-minute running time.  Never once was I bored, yet somehow something felt missing.  All of the information was there, Gibney covers everything, conducts smart interviews, and pieces everything together beautifully.  Yet this movie left me thinking, but not passionate about the issues it addressed.  The best documentaries about scandals or modern-day issues leave me feeling passionate about a new cause, or in the very least, interested in researching more on the topic.  We Steal Secrets takes a far too straightforward approach to the material.  All of the information is interesting, but it doesn't have the energy that other documentaries have to get people passionate.

That being said, We Steal Secrets asks some thought-provoking questions such as: what are we, as US citizens, entitled to know?  What is the government entitled to keep from us and should they keep anything from us?  These questions are addressed in the film, but never answered, which is smart.  This lack of answers allows us to come to our own conclusions with the material.

Alex Gibney came to a post-screening Q&A and gave some fascinating insight into the process of making We Steal Secrets.  Originally he said that he wanted the film to be about Assange.  However, Assange refused to be interviewed.  Gibney said that he was happy about that because he could focus more on Lamo and Manning, two key figures in this story.  Gibney described Manning, Lamo, and Assange as "three anonymous characters exchanging information."  The three didn't know each other, yet built an information chain that proved to be powerful.  This remark is a comment on the Information Age that we live in today.  Today, everyone is online, taking the human touch out of communication, allowing people to write things/send things that they would never say/send to someone in person.  THis is exactly what Manning, Lamo, and Assange did.  Had the Internet never have existed, much would be different in the WikiLeaks scandal, but one thing is certain: Manning would likely have never leaked the documents that he did if he were to have had to do it in person.  In this age, people may never meet each other, but they can create something powerful, as shown by this film.

Gibney later talked about Assange and how he thinks of him as a case of "noble cause corruption".  As a preface, the film is sympathetic to WikiLeaks and also Assange, until Assange becomes corrupted by his overnight fame.  This "noble cause corruption" is what happens when someone feels as if they are on a holy mission and, as a result, do something bad.  When Assange becomes (in)famous, he becomes far less sympathetic.  The film, though stays more or less sympathetic to WikiLeaks throughout, though.

Finally, Gibney was asked about whether Assange reacted to We Steal Secrets.  Immediately, Gibney laughed and simply answered, "Yes."  Assange has never seen the film, but he renounced Gibney and the film.  Assange was so mad that he leaked an annotated transcript of the film.  Gibney mentioned that he conducts interviews by asking dumb questions, which allows interviewees to feel more relaxed and open up to him.  The question lingers: how open would Assange be if interviewed by Gibney?  We will likely never know.

Overall, We Steal Secrets is a very solid and entertaining documentary that misses greatness due to its inability to incite passion.  It is certainly worth going to see, though, as it gives a lot to think about and just tells a really relevant and terrifying story.


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