"We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks" may be a documentary, but director Alex Gibney gives the film the feel of a propulsive espionage techno-thriller played out in the real world.
The movie is in some sense two films in one. It's partly a study of the well-known Julian Assange, who captured the world's attention when his WikiLeaks website made volumes of sensitive U.S. government material available online, sparking a firestorm of controversy over secrecy and freedom of information in the digital age. But viewers may be less familiar with Bradley Manning, the low-level Army intelligence analyst who provided Assange with his most daring cache of documents and is soon to begin a court-martial stemming from those activities.
Gibney (with editor Andy Grieve) does a skillful job of making the stories of the men dovetail and remain distinct. Audiences will likely go into the movie curious about Assange and leave concerned for Manning.
Assange, with his silver hair, beakish features and penchant for didactic pronouncements, has often been said to have the air of a Bond villain about him. Manning, on the other hand, is nondescript to the point of invisibility, a lonely, sympathetic figure reaching out to the online void. On-screen transcripts of Manning's Internet chats with hacker Adrian Lamo — who ultimately turned him in — provide some the most emotional moments in the film.
The film attempts to separate WikiLeaks — as an organization and ideal for modern transparency — from Assange, the all-too-fallible human. It's no easy task, given that Assange was at times the only person working for the website.
Gibney ably dealt with multiple challenges on access — Assange wouldn't cooperate after Gibney sought an on-camera interview. And he had to work around Manning being in detention, sometimes in solitary confinement, waiting for his court martial to begin.
Assange is living in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, seeking to avoid extradition to Sweden for questioning in connection with sexual assault allegations.
Gibney has become such a prolific filmmaker since winning the Oscar for "Taxi to the Dark Side" in 2008 that it can be difficult to keep straight which films really matter. Make no mistake, "We Steal Secrets" is a sprawling, ambitious, major work — a gripping exploration of power, personality, technology and the crushing weight that can come to bear on those who find themselves in its combined path.
'We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks'
Rated: R for some disturbing violent images, language and sexual material
Running time: 2 hours,and 9 minutes
Playing: At the ArcLight Hollywood and Laemmle Monica