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We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks Movie Review - -

We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks
Reviewed by Maren Smith on July 10th, 2013
presents a film directed by Alex Gibney
Screenplay by Alex Gibney
Julian Assange, Adrian Lamo and Bradley Manning
Running Time: 130 minutes
Rating: M
Released: July 4th, 2013



Alex Gibney’s latest documentary ‘We Steal Secrets’ delves headfirst into the morally murky and hyperbole riddled world of people involved with Wikileaks.  The film is entertaining through and through, with precise social commentary punctuating the ebb and flow of deception and revelation.

The story unfolds in a fresh and exciting way, even for those of us who’ve long saturated our brains in Wikileaks tidbits. Exceptional composition, accompanied by great animations, means it’s a triumph of editing. The score leads us from Midnight Oil in a quote on the WANK worm hack stemming from Melbourne in 1989, through to Lady Gaga, as Bradley Manning (allegedly) transfers the biggest information leak to date onto a CD labeled with the pop singer’s name. ‘We Steal Secrets’ invites us into the moments of recent history being made.

Featuring interviews with the usual talking heads interspersed with archival footage of Manning and Assange, it divulges little new information to the informed viewer, but brings detail and the personal to the already well-worn tale. Clarity is sought through multiple perspectives, yet the craft of the film defies its purpose: it is too perfectly composed as a form of entertainment to attempt any complex philosophy surrounding the political and social implications of the subject matter.

The director’s voice is very present, with a focus on storytelling more than on genuinely attempting a search for truth, information or perspective. Gibney’s ethics could be questioned for making ‘We Steal Secrets’ at a time when many of the protagonists face dire repercussions, and while the film has a strong sense of moral outrage throughout, it is superficial and ultimately shallow in examining the legal, political and present historical contexts.

It is, however, intensely moving as a cinematic experience. The film hits all the highs and lows perfectly, from the excitement of Assange’s great rise, the little guy who likes to ‘crush bastards’, to the truly heartbreaking story of Bradley Manning, a misfit whose moral compass is struggling with great knowledge of horrors of war crimes hidden from the general public, and whose loneliness and desperation for companionship undid him.

The film is relatively evenhanded in neither damning nor glorifying Assange, but following him as a modern Shakespearean hero, where the real struggle is with the moral compass within. The shifting of the political to the individual is presented as an issue within the film, but one that it does little to mitigate within itself. As a litmus test of the film’s leanings, I admired the cautiousness regarding the sexual assault case brought to Assange in Sweden, in which the theoretically apolitical and apersonal intention of Wikileaks was perverted by a most personal and muddy legal case that collided the individual with the organisation.

On a topic fraught with hyperbole, the film attempts a balanced review of opinions, but is more concerned with the individual personalities involved than the greater social consequences (beyond dramatic statements). It points the blame at Assange’s ego for getting away from him, at Wikileaks for being underprepared to release the leaks without negative consequence, at the mainstream media, particularly the New York Times for abandoning its support of Wikileaks and effectively throwing Assange and free speech to the wolves, to the rabid fans of Wikileaks, whose cult-like adoration has twisted what should be apolitical method of exposing secrets, and at government and army denial of culpability for the systemic failure at preventing the leaks by use of Manning and Assange as scapegoats. This wild finger-pointing is exciting and touches on many prescient issues, but sadly falls short in enlightening us.

In terms of filmmaking, storytelling, editing, animation and entertainment, ‘We Steal Secrets’ is one of the most enjoyable and moving films I’ve seen this year. With regard to the ethics and philosophy of documentary making, it’s a little behind the times but not so biased as to render it obsolete.


The biggest drawcard is the sense of immersion in the moment of history happening. Although the film already feels slightly dated since its completion and release, the story has evolved again with Edward Snowden and the NSA coming to the fore of international public consciousness. The film’s title is delivered, not by a foolhardy Assange, but by Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA and NSA, lit in darkness, leaning toward camera with a chilling smirk: ‘I’m going to be very candid with you, right? We steal secrets.’ And so they do. I look forward to the documentary that details those crimes more than the personalities of those that expose them, but for the moment, Gibney’s film is a fantastic and moving story of those personalities. 


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