By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
Alex Gibney is the documentary filmmaker whose energetic, politically charged films include “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and the Oscar-winning “Taxi to the Dark Side.”
It makes sense that he would clamber onto the spicy tale of Julian Assange, the white-haired super-hacker whose WikiLeaks enterprise has brought down the wrath of governments and corporations.
Gibney should be a good match with the subject. But “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks,” while containing no shortage of fascinating material, is less than satisfying.
Gibney begins with background on Assange and WikiLeaks, building to the 2010 disclosure of a disturbing video of the military killing people who turned out to be noncombatants (including two Reuters journalists) in Bagdad.
That was followed by the cascade of classified documents leaked by Assange and simultaneously published in the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Speigel.
Although the film stops to talk about this material, and allows for talking heads to comment on it, the focus shifts to personalities.
One is Assange, whose image gradually evolves from glamorous-if-nerdy whistleblower to paranoid egotist. Assange has inspired much hero-worship among his admirers, so let me add that, yes, he has plenty of reason to be paranoid, and probably almost as much reason to be an egotist.
“We Steal Secrets” covers the charges of sexual impropriety made against Assange by two Swedish women, and (although Assange’s backers dispute this) appears to lay out an even-handed case. That legal thicket is part of the reason Assange is currently residing inside Ecuador’s embassy in London, awaiting exile, extradition or arrest.
The other personality is Bradley Manning, the U.S. soldier whose access to thousands of classified items allegedly led him to spill this great cache to the outside world.
You can almost feel Gibney’s attention gravitating to Manning’s curious profile: a troubled Oklahoma kid, too sensitive to belong in the military, overwhelmed by loneliness while stationed in Iraq. And on top of all that, to paraphrase a line from a David Bowie song, not sure if he’s a boy or a girl.
No wonder Manning takes over the movie for a while. Neither Manning nor Assange is interviewed, so we have to glean what we can from prior interviews and statements.
A bigger problem: While the film’s release is timely (Manning’s trial began last week, and the NSA leak gives a new life to the subject), there’s a lingering sense that “We Steal Secrets” arrives while its story is in midstream. There’s too much hanging in the balance for this movie to feel definitive.
“We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks” 2 and 1/2 stars
The story behind the WikiLeaks affair, from Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney. The documentary gravitates toward two personalities, super-hacker Julian Assange and soldier-whistleblower Bradley Manning — interesting people, yet the film feels unsatisfying, maybe because the events it depicts are still in midstream.
Rated: R for language, subject matter.
Showing: SIFF Cinema Uptown.