Please note: We Steal Secrets was filmed and released before Chelsea Manning announced her wish for hormone therapy treatment and to no longer be called Bradley. She is still called Bradley in this documentary. I am respecting her wishes, but please keep in mind the difference when you watch this amazing film.We all like to think that we own the truth. Our version of events is always the most just and free from condemnation. It's when competing narratives, combined with real pain, start to collide with our chosen stories that major cracks start to form. Those competing narratives have always involved human life, but the more technologically advanced we become as a society, the more that we are seeing these narratives scrambling to fight and stay ahead.
We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks (just We Steal Secrets from this point on) details the most violent and public display of this clash. It goes back to the founding of the eponymous service of the film, touching on some of the biggest controversies, and tries to understand the motivations behind the people who run it, as well as the people who reported on those that shared secrets. There is no easy summary for what goes on in the film, and there shouldn't be. This is the kind of film that had me examining the narrative I've built my life around, and just what is, or is not, necessary to run a free society.
Director Alex Gibney has made a very successful career out of making these politically charged documentaries. but instead of the antagonistic, onscreen approach that his contemporary Michael Moore might use, he usually finds that the best way to bring out the story is through the words of the people who can't be around to tell it. Yes, there are plenty of interviews with people who lived through the events and can shed more insight about what effect Wikileaks had on the world. But, like in his earlier films Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Taxi to the Dark Side, it's the voices who won't or can't speak anymore that shed the most light.
At first glance, We Steal Secrets is mostly about the longtime public spokesman for Wikileaks, Julian Assange, who requested a million dollars or secrets from Gibney to speak in the film (Gibney declined both). We see and hear a lot of Julian, who constantly positions himself as a crusading avenger for free information across the globe. But Gibney makes sure that there is one key detail presented about Julian right at the start of the film when he gives an interview and says, with no hesitation, "I like crushing bastards." This is a key fracture in the persona that Julian has constructed for the public, no matter how many images we see of Julian as the avenging angel, Gibney is right behind him showing the Julian that he would rather leave shrouded.
But there is another voice seen but never heard throughout the documentary. That voice belongs to Chelsea Manning, the intelligence officer who was arrested and recently found guilty of various espionage charges. Gibney makes an important decision when it comes to Chelsea, as we hear testimony from her friends, companions at the barracks she worked at, and from the man who turned her in, Adrian Lamo. But all that we see from Chelsea is her silently standing in the background of videos that happened to capture her, and all that we hear is the clacking of the keyboard as she types out her fears.
Between Julian and Chelsea, Gibney makes the human cost of secrets, and of the effect of Wikileaks, devastatingly clear. Julian, who is an avenger in public, but Gibney keeps revealing pieces of that shed him in increasingly unflattering light in his fight to force a new global narrative, eventually revealing that he may be a monster himself. Then Chelsea, who is the one caught between multiple narratives, one thrust on her by the army, the other she tried to build for herself, and the other that made her useful to Julian. She is but one victim in all this, but her story puts the most immediate and painful conclusion forward.
Outside of the personal tales, Gibney keeps the film barreling forward with a constant timeline of Wikileaks affect on the outside world. His usually calm narration takes on a fresh edge when providing small details if some of the footage and secrets Wikileaks released. He knows when to stay out and let the events speak for themselves, such as the American attack on an innocent group civilians, and provide crucial details like the driver caught in the fire who just wanted to take his kids to school. The global stage never becomes dim, even as it threatens to become overwhelmed by dozens of voices, Gibney hones in on the various nation's strategies to deal with Wikileaks and the repetition of their assault.
One sly detail captured by Gibney was how the rhetoric of Julian and the various government heads begins to merge. Julian speaks at the outset of how those who are keeping secrets should be arrested and if what they are doing is not illegal than the law needs to be changed. Later on, we hear U.S. Senator Mitch Mcconnell say the exact same thing about Julian. In keeping secrets, foes come to resemble one another.
This is another important film coming from a seemingly endless well of energy and creativity from Alex Gibney. I still believe a veneer of polite and sturdy society has to be kept up in order for our world to avoid decaying into endless conflict. But We Steal Secrets challenged me that in keeping that veneer I am willingly allowing some crimes to get pushed aside for a greater good. There is no clear answer who is right and who is wrong in the long-term, but so long as films like this are made we can keep challenging ourselves to become better, as confusing and painful as that may be.
Directed by Alex Gibney.