From its first posting of classified U.S. government documents, the exploits of WikiLeaks and its enigmatic, white-haired founder Julian Assange have fascinated millions worldwide. Such current affairs all but scream out for a filmmaker to investigate and boil down the information into something digestible for the masses, and in We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, Alex Gibney has done just that. For a director whose past of-the-moment subjects include Enron and U.S. torture practices, and who is currently in post-production on a Lance Armstrong documentary, the pairing seems close to ideal. Based on the final cut, however, either the website’s actual story is less tantalizing than we’ve been led to believe, or it truly is spectacular and Gibney’s new film simply fails to present it as such.
True to its title, We Steal Secrets presents the story of WikiLeaks, but does so in an almost uncertain manner. Unable to locate a tone or, until the very end, focus the storytelling in a way that makes a clear argument about the site or Assange, Gibney’s film wafts between various story strands with little sense for continuity. Throughout the overlong process, the information’s inherent interest often shines through, though is far from presented in the most compelling manner.
As with Casino Jack and the United States of Money, Gibney presents transcripts of text onscreen, retyped as if being seen for the first time. While the ridiculous content of Jack Abramoff’s emails fit in well with the wild nature of the earlier film, each time somber chat dialogue between leak-to-be Pfc. Bradley Manning and his hacker confidante Adrien Lamo is recreated, it disrupts any flow built up to that point. In response, We Steal Secrets is then forced to rebuild its sense of rhythm, something its traditional documentary components are ill equipped to pull off.
Even with this meandering approach, powerful messages indeed come together at the end. Through strong interviews with major WikiLeaks players and those who knew Manning, compelling arguments are eventually made for the story’s true hero and possibly its true villain, one who lost sight of the website’s original mission when odd personal complications arose. Reaching these points, however, is unnecessarily time-consuming and often tedious, its mix of presentation styles holding it back instead of adding to the intrigue. Whether these shortcomings are inherent of the material or merely Gibney’s handling of it won’t be clear until more filmmakers turn their lenses on WikiLeaks, but as the first major documentary on the website, We Steal Secrets leaves much to be desired.
Rated R for some disturbing violent images, language and sexual material.
We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.