Julian Assange: silver-haired freedom fighter or creepy cyber-guru? Bradley Manning: courageous whistle-blower or tormented info-traitor? Alex Gibney’s overlong but fascinating “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks” manages to convince you that both sides of the equation deserve consideration even as the film carefully separates the strands of a maddening snarl of event and accusation. This is the documentary that lets you grasp the 2010 WikiLeaks scandal in its entirety, even if the questions raised — whether facts belong to a government or its people, whether any secrets deserve to remain so, whether diplomacy is possible in a world where all is known — are left for us to resolve.
Unexpectedly, some of the film’s most forthcoming talking heads are men once charged with keeping America’s secrets. The title comes from a comment made by General Michael Hayden, former head of the NSA and CIA, who bluntly acknowledges that stealing other nations’ information is what his agencies do. J. William Leonard, from 2002 to 2008 the government’s “classification czar,” sounds like a chartered Wired subscriber, toeing the information-wants-to-be-free line and describing how the US intelligence agencies set the stage for Assange, founder and editor in chief of WikiLeaks, by agreeing to share data and put everything online in the post-9/11 era.
Thus one Baghdad-based Army private working in intel could spelunk his way through hundreds of thousands of classified documents, and, horrified by the carnage he saw documented there, choose to share them with the world. “We Steal Secrets” doesn’t much care what you think about PFC Bradley Manning other than to understand that he was a young man profoundly miserable in his own skin and that he saw contacting Assange as a way to both honor his conscience and save his soul. The first fruit of their anonymous collaboration was the release of video of the July 2007 Apache airstrike in which eight men, including two correspondents for Reuters, were killed.
Assange’s own motives are pure on the surface and murky beneath, and Oscar-winner Gibney (“Taxi to the Dark Side”) spends a lot of time plumbing them. An info-anarchist with the glib charisma of a rock star, he built WikiLeaks with an assortment of earnest young Europeans, all of them more suspicious of the spotlight than he. Most of them have since disassociated themselves and freely offer their thoughts for the camera, including former WikiLeaks second-in-command Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Icelandic parliamentarian Birgitta Jonsdottir, and the baby-cheeked James Ball, who took over as the public face of WikiLeaks once Assange had imploded. All of them express mortification at the way noble ideals became, in his hands and in the media, a cult of personality.
Neither Assange nor Manning is interviewed in “We Steal Secrets” — the former remains in asylum in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, while the latter has been held, controversially, in a series of detention facilities prior to a trial set to begin June 3. Assange is represented by his many media appearances, though, and Manning by the anonymous e-mails he sent to Assange and Adrian Lamo, the hacker who befriended him and then turned him in. Those e-mails, heard being read on the soundtrack, are the ghost in the movie’s machine, the words of a man agonized by the weight of forbidden knowledge and by life itself.
Manning ultimately sent WikiLeaks thousands of pages of classified military and diplomatic documents, and Assange formed an alliance with The New York Times (The New York Times Company owns The Boston Globe), England’s The Guardian, and Germany’s Der Spiegel to publish them. What happened then, according to “We Steal Secrets” was interesting: The fallout fell squarely on the WikiLeaks founder while the big boys backed cautiously away from their source. (Former Times editor Bill Keller’s poison-pen profile of Assange in the newspaper’s magazine was a particular kick in the teeth.) Nor did Assange make matters easier for himself, blurring the line between righteous ideology and self-righteous paranoia.
“We Steal Secrets” is especially deft at exposing and neutralizing spin, no matter where it comes from. The media’s contention that Assange might have “blood on his hands” by putting US lives in danger conveniently shifted attention from the documented civilians already dead. Assange’s own attempts to cast the rape charges brought against him by Swedish police in August 2010 as a political frame-up are seen as a conscious strategy to muddy the waters by playing the martyr card. (Gibney interviews one of the women; it seems fairly clear that what started consensually in both cases took a turn for the deeply weird. In any event, the online lynching of the two women by Assange’s supporters remains inexcusable.)
Is the world a better place for WikiLeaks’ existence? I suppose that depends on whether you trust your government to always do the right thing and to let you know when it doesn’t. (In other words: yes.) It also depends on whether you think the affair’s fallout includes the Arab Spring and the ongoing catastrophe in Syria. (In other words: maybe.) We’ll get another crack at this story in October, when “The Fifth Estate” opens in theaters, directed by Bill Condon (“Dreamgirls,” “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn”) and starring Benedict Cumberbatch (“Star Trek Into Darkness”) as Julian Assange. But see Gibney’s documentary before that dramatized telling, if only to track where history’s exposed secrets turn into Hollywood’s entertaining lies.