Film Review: We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks

Brilliant but maddening documentary about WikiLeaks tries to solve the puzzles behind two mysterious figures, Julian Assange and Bradley Manning.

Director Alex Gibney continues his dissection of flawed characters with We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks. On its surface, the documentary looks at the shadowy organization that helped expose irregular banking practices in Iceland and reams of sensitive data about the U.S. involvement in Iran and Afghanistan. But Gibney goes considerably beyond a simple rehash of news events by focusing on two compelling characters: Julian Assange and Bradley Manning.

The film traces Assange back to his days as the Australian computer hacker "Mendax," derived from the Latin for "noble liar." Assange adopted a "one against the world" philosophy fueled by paranoia and increasingly rigid moral decisions. With WikiLeaks, he helped establish a way to publish secret and classified information in what was promised to be an anonymous fashion.

WikiLeaks quickly became an international sensation, publishing Church of Scientology manuals, details about inmates at Guantanamo, and, perhaps most spectacularly, a video of a 2007 Baghdad air strike in which American troops killed innocent journalists and civilians. Assange formed an alliance with The New York Times and The Guardian, in part for political protection, in part to increase exposure for WikiLeaks. He became an international celebrity.

But in 2010, Swedish police began an investigation into allegations that Assange sexually assaulted two women. Although that case is still unfolding today, Assange became a pariah almost overnight. The Times and The Guardian dissociated themselves from WikiLeaks; credit card companies refused to process donations to the site; and Assange was ultimately forced into hiding to avoid extradition to Sweden.

As Gibney explains, the Baghdad video was leaked by Bradley Manning, an Army Specialist who had access to millions of secret and classified military and State Department documents. Starting in 2009, Manning allegedly started downloading material and posting it to WikiLeaks.

A genuinely tragic figure, Manning was an outsider who was not only openly gay, but an anti-war protestor. Demoted after punching his superior, he began to identify as a woman, referring to himself as Breanna. Isolated, lonely, he befriended security consultant Adrian Lamo on the Internet.

Lamo would eventually betray Manning to authorities, leading to the soldier's arrest. Agents found a half-million State Department and military cables and reports on his computer. The computer also allegedly contained encrypted chats with Assange and other WikiLeaks figures.

Assange and Manning are a sort of yin and yang in We Steal Secrets, the former a gifted, focused, at times ruthless manipulator; the latter a hapless, forlorn computer nerd desperately trying to connect with the larger world. Ironically, both became victims of the secrets they tried to hide about themselves.

Gibney, whose most recent documentary Mea Maxima Culpa examined sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, manages to distill an incredibly complex and convoluted story to a clear, precise narrative. Using interviews, news clips and archival footage, the director builds a persuasive argument that personal privacy, in fact any secrecy at all, may be impossible in the age of the Internet.

We Steal Secrets begins and ends with the cosmos, as if Gibney had reached an impasse of sorts. Unlike his films about the Enron scandal or Jack Abramoff, there's no real villain to condemn here, just figures mired in situations beyond their control. Of these, the haunted, bewildered Lamo may be the most upsetting.