When Julian Assange exploded into the public consciousness as the face behind WikiLeaks, in the wake of the site's publication of previously secret war logs from Afghanistan and Iraq, nearly everybody formed an immediate opinion of the white-haired Aussie. Some saw him as an anarchist savior ready to pull the wool from the eyes of the world. Others saw him as a terrorist revealing secrets that could endanger troops on the ground. Both those who defended and those who decried his actions were rabid in defense of their positions.
With We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, lauded documentarian Alex Gibney traces Assange's rise from teen hacker to international celebrity with the same verve and compelling storytelling that netted him an Oscar for the jarring Taxi to the Dark Side. We Sell Secrets manages the difficult task of humanizing the rise and fall of Assange and those in his orbit through heartbreaking interviews, shocking battlefield footage and in-depth interviews with those involved in and affected by the release of the information. (Assange was not interviewed, since the small-budget doc couldn't afford $1 million for a conversation.)
What emerges is an engaging combination of statistical analysis and character study that wisely eschews exclusive focus on Assange. In its most compelling moments, the film trains its lens on Bradley Manning, the young, isolated Army intelligence analyst who, despite WikiLeaks' professed policy of never disclosing whistle-blowers' identities, was arrested and held in solitary confinement after he supplied Assange with hundreds of thousands of files. Manning (whose trial just began) tells a story of confusion and betrayal through his text conversations with Assange and hacker Adrian Lamo, to whom he disclosed his gender-identity issues before being double-crossed.
Meanwhile, the film takes great pains to paint Assange not as a martyr, villain, saint or terrorist, but as a man struggling with fame and commitment to his cause. "I'm untouchable," Assange says when the first round of files hits the public. His hubris is shocking—especially for someone who spent his days hiding from public view strapped in a bulletproof vest—yet somehow rings true. Assange became the symbol everyone wanted him to be—for good or ill—but We Steal Secrets portrays him in a way few have imagined: as human.
Critic's Grade: B+
SEE IT: We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks is rated R. It opens Friday at Living Room Theaters.