By Gabe Toro | The Playlist May 22, 2013 at 11:35AM
Nevertheless, “We Steal Secrets” seems unfinished (fair enough, given it tells a story that's still in progress), but never inadequate, doubling back to present an account on the beginnings of WikiLeaks. This involves perusing the considerable intellect and damning vanity of Julian Assange, who has smartly denounced this doc on the grounds of illegitimacy, given that he’s a man with a definite image to protect. “We Steal Secrets” is actually mostly favorable towards Assange as far as his impact on societies ranging from earlier free speech battles. But it also doesn’t fail to acknowledge Assange’s love of the spotlight, his theatrical intelligence allowing for grandiose statements about freedom and the illusory notion that he is “one of the people.” Worth noting: Assange’s lack of approval for this doc comes without him having seen or participated in it.
“We Steal Secrets” casts enough a wide net, but its principal points of focus seem to be Assange and Pvt. Bradley Manning, who gave up a surplus of secrets to WikiLeaks simply because he had no one else to reach out towards. The media has done an excellent job of either eulogizing or demonizing Manning without the public knowing much, so it doesn’t take a whole lot to humanize him. And what is discovered through text and deeper investigation is that Manning, considered treasonous by some, was not only a very real, very complex person, but also one that acted while in a deep emotional pain.
Gibney’s doc isn’t foolish or emotional enough to suggest Manning’s condition is a cause-and-effect of his leak, but it forces us to consider the presence of a lonely, disillusioned loner with a confused identity surrounded not only by people with no common interests, but also a “What happens in Kabul stays in Kabul” attitude towards wrongdoing. His wizardry in the field of computers is seen as his only conduit, technology providing this loner with his only means of communication. It’s damning not only that the military wouldn’t be proactive as far as Manning’s depression and introversion (his sexuality in particular is something he’s discovered is a bit more fluid than he expected), but in allowing someone with Manning’s skill level to access military technology and bandwidth to release these damaging documents and files.
His conversations with a wayward hacker reveal not only someone deeply interested in the secrets behind what could have been considered war crimes (we see some harrowing, inexcusably sloppy military footage that shows the deaths of innocents), but also two lonely people floating in cyberspace: when Manning confesses his homosexuality to his confidante, his “me too” is touching, suggesting that Manning had finally found the closest thing to a kindred spirit. Which makes it all the more heartbreaking when that paranoid net junkie, Adrian Lamo, turned Manning in for his information cache. Knowing that Manning was eventually captured and detained by the U.S. government for a full year without a trial or specific charge lends the film the chilling air that Lamo probably saved his own skin (Manning finally plead guilty to ten counts in court this February).
“We Steal Secrets” is paced with a level of even-headed righteous indignation, like a late-period album from a punk stalwart. It’s impossible to not feel the gravity of what’s at stake, as the film emphasizes not the public response (which was nil, following the first week of outrage), nor the wayward punditry (thank God) but rather the bare essentials. The greater focus lies on the footage of slain innocents at the hands of soldiers, collateral damage of which there is no excuse. Gibney wisely avoids the trap a lesser filmmaker would seek, an “even-handed” approach to the interviews that would allow for some suited military representative to find a buzzword-ish explanation for the lost lives. Of course, they can’t seem to help themselves: one Rumsfeldian rep verbally wallpapers over the deaths of innocents by discussing the importance of secrecy to the government, in a conversational manner that suggests the sort of cold-bloodedness you only see in superhero movies.
Still, Gibney’s film shakes and swirls with a pop rhythm: a memorable bit reveals that Manning procured a number of confidential files while blaring Lady Gaga’s “Telephone,” a revelation that merits much further unpacking. And Gibney seems to understand, without judging, the egotism that results in Assange’s and Manning’s actions, as the latter had such little control over his own world that the WikiLeaks correspondence gave his attitude a considerable boost. Information is power, the film argues, and that power can often imbue even the smallest ant enough to save his life. Despite a lack of access to Manning and Assange, “We Steal Secrets” is a vital document of a pivotal moment in world history that we’re still experiencing as we speak. [A-]