It’s one of those stories too strange and epic to make up, filled with the kind of intrigue and tension you would expect from a LeCarre novel, but etched across the face of modern history. The saga of WikiLeaks works on an intrinsically cinematic scale, so it’s little surprise that cinema has turned its head towards the website and the controversy it caused as a source of inspiration. Most adaptations, from the recent tele-movie to the upcoming biopic starring Benedict Cumberbatch, have focused solely on the major player, Australian hacker and activist Julian Assange, which makes sense considering his now rock-star status. Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney, however, has cast the net much wider, and with his startling film ‘We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks’, presents an almost Shakespearean tale of power, corruption and sacrifice.
‘We Steal Secrets’ essentially boils down to the story of two men. One is the very public Assange, a man almost biologically designed to be an icon, and his motivations for founding WikiLeaks, a website designed specifically for leaking classified and important documents to the public while offering anonymity for whistleblowers providing that information. After leaking information about bank corruption in Iceland, Assange and his website are planted firmly on the map, and opened the door for the second protagonist to enter, one we’ve always heard little about. Bradley Manning, an incredibly private young U.S. Army intelligence officer, finds himself with access to hundreds of thousands of classified documents covering the invasions and Afghanistan and Iraq. Crippled with guilt at the horrors he finds, and fighting his own personal demons, Manning supplies the information to WikiLeaks, causing the largest security leak in U.S. history and turning WikiLeaks and its players from hipster political activists to the most controversial fugitives in the world.
WE STEAL SECRETS: THE STORY OF WIKILEAKS - TRAILER
Much like another recent documentary, ‘The Imposter’, ‘We Steal Secrets’ takes the form into unexpected and thrilling directions, especially with its visual landscape. As well as beautifully shot interviews, Gibney opens up the Assange aspects of the film with candid documentary footage shot during the initial Afghan Logs leak. Assange declined to be interviewed for the film, but this footage fills the gaps, showing us unusual and unexpected sides of Assange, especially his vulnerability and genuine paranoia. Other members of WikiLeaks speak as well, along with press from The Guardian, who assisted in the release of the logs, and ex-members of the U.S. intelligence services. Gibney has a wealth of material to use, thanks to Assange’s cult status, but rather than furthering the legend, he chooses to present a more balanced view of the man. For once, Assange is a human being rather than an icon.
Where ‘We Steal Secrets’ really stands out, however, is its telling of Manning’s story. Compared to Assange, his background is almost completely unknown, and very little exists in terms of footage and interviews with Manning. In fact, we never get to hear Manning’s voice in the film at all. What Gibney does have, however, are transcripts of Manning’s confessional conversations with hacker Adrian Lamo, who eventually turned Manning in. Manning’s world is the internet, and with great ingenuity, Gibney visualises that landscape. Information pathways carrying data are highways of light and electricity, sweeping and twisting across the screen. Rather than have an actor narrate Manning’s confessions, they appear typed on the screen, and coupled with Will Bates’ score, become some of the most thrilling moments of the film. Manning’s story is really the great pull of this film, and in almost every way, it defies expectation, so much so that revealing any of it here would rob it of its power. Here, the story of WikiLeaks becomes a tragedy, and a shattering one at that.
This is such an accomplished piece of documentary filmmaking, I can’t imagine it being bettered by a traditional dramatisation.
This is such an accomplished piece of documentary filmmaking, I can’t imagine it being bettered by a traditional dramatisation. It moves at a dizzying pace, never tripping. Gibney structures it like the perfect thriller, so that even information that is common knowledge become moments of genuine revelation. It would have been easy (and understandable) for the film to focus on the politics and social implications of the website, but by taking the human route, a candid examination of the people at the heart of WikiLeaks and its eventual collapse, ‘We Steal Secrets’ becomes a powerful and moving experience. Its visual and audio leaps also make it one of those rare documentaries best seen on the big screen, even to the point where I found myself wishing it had been converted to 3D. ‘We Steal Secrets’ is an absolute must-see event, intelligently executed and unforgettable. Not only is it a contender for one of the best documentaries of the year, it might be one of the best films of the year full stop.