The story of Wikileaks and the men who created it is one of the most important stories of the 21st century. As governments around the world increasingly look at their citizens as dangerous enemies, it’s almost reassuring to know there are people who are demonstrating it’s often those governments that are guilty of the most horrendous abuses of power.
It’s difficult though to make a narrative film about Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, and their impacts on the world. The Fifth Estate failed to connect to people. I haven’t seen it, but the consensus seems to be that it’s impossible to show hackers as exciting and the film did not really examine Assange as a man. Alex Gibney does not have that problem. In Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Gibney makes white collar crime seem as exciting as any heist film and was able to examine some of the most deceitful men imaginable and didn’t just wag his finger. He’s the perfect man to examine Assange and Wikileaks, and his present film does not disappoint.
What’s most incredible about the film is how closely it resembles Citizen Kane. Like Kane, Assange had no stable home environment. Kane and Assange both became involved in their industries at young ages and became noted for their talents. Both men also let their talents stoke their egos to the point that they view themselves as rock stars. Sexual predilections and scandals threaten to undo both men and as they continue in their trade, they slowly alienate their former allies. Both Citizen Kane and We Steal Secrets are about those same allies dishing the dirt on their friend, talking about how they betrayed the very things that they stood for.
Assange has an excuse – several governments want him dead and the scandals and charges against him may very well be traps by intelligence agencies. But, like in Kane, there is a great sense of tragedy that comes out of Assange’s story. He ended up becoming the very thing he fought against, to the point where he would not participate in this movie unless he was either paid $1,000,000 or Gibney spied on his friends for him. When Gibney tells the story, it has just as much of a punch as Kane receiving is “antique” manifesto in the mail. These are fantastic moments with so much meaning.
Yet even more compelling is the story of Chelsea Manning – in fact, it is pointed out several times that she remained the political underdog that Assange did not. Manning is also not interviewed for the film (for obvious reasons) but people like Adrian Lamo fight back tears as they describe Manning and his internal struggles. But Gibney, once again, does not want to pass judgement on Manning. He lets others simply state what they experienced with him. Manning comes across as rather naive and desperate for understanding. But his actions do well enough. The documentary is sure to include the video that Manning leaked of soldiers gunning down civilians and laughing as their trucks run over corpses. It’s little wonder there was a cover up – the footage was a damning indictment of what was happening overseas.
But the biggest question is not about Assange or Manning. It is about what their actions mean to the world. We Steal Secrets includes many hours of b-roll footage of protests during the Arab Spring, Anonymous videos, and politicians trying desperately to maintain the illusion that they can control the message. That’s the ultimate victory of Wikileaks, and Gibney knows it. It’s why he places just as much emphasis on the reality of the situation as he does with archival interviews of Assange letting his victories go to his head. Even the title is not meant to condemn – it comes across as a fact. Yes, Wikileaks does “steal secrets.” But why? The film does provide an answer by repeating the things that were supposed to stay secret. At the end of the day, as the film acknowledges, it was not material designed to keep people safe – unless that person held a position of power.
This is the story that needs to be told but one that is also difficult to tell due to the feelings that surround Assange and his deeds. The Fifth Estate, by all accounts, demonstrated that. But Gibney’s film matches the subject perfectly. We Steal Secrets is currently on Netflix Instant so it is finally able to be seen by a mass audience. You owe it to yourself to watch it no matter what you think of the subject.