Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney (Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (2010) and Taxi to the Dark Side (2007)), focuses his line of questioning on the phenomenon of government secret keeping and the media’s exploitation of those secrets. Australian hacker turned activist Julian Assange created a website called Wikileaks with the sole purpose of pushing a free-speech agenda. The goal was for no one to feel safe keeping information from the general public. Assange felt there should be no secrets in this digital age and was to use Wikileaks as a vehicle for hackers, informers and whistleblowers to release any and all classified information. It stated with a bang, but ended with a secret.
Gibney obtained access to Assange and his followers, allowing us to see into the minds of rebel nerds revolting against their parents with their computers. We learned the organization’s main motives and its internal structure, or lack there of, of what quickly became one of the most well-known and sophisticated websites in the world. As Wikileaks became more notorious, so did its poster boy. So when the media attention swarmed and Wikileaks grew, so did Assange’s ego and paranoia.
One of the mantras Wikileaks always held was that it would keep their whistleblowers’ identities safe. But what happens if someone wants to be known for their leak? The leak that ultimately sprung a leak in Wikileak’s ship began with Bradley Manning. A farm boy from Oklahoma, Manning didn’t feel right in his own skin and is looking for answers. A trans-gendered computer technician deployed in Iraq, Manning had access to a plethora of his nation’s secrets. Once Manning was unable to cope with the effects of war and he could no longer handle his feeling of loneness, he reached out to anyone that would listen: Assange.
Assange always showed in the media his courage and idealism for a world without secrets. Yet, he was hiding his own. Scared and paranoid, Assange allowed his own secrets to penetrate the Wikileaks shell and ultimately destroy his vision. After Manning was arrested and the United States’ military leaks were causing a political headache, Assange was slapped with suspicion of rape by two women. Politically motivated? Possibly. Except you get to meet one of the women and get to know the real story.
Gibney has a talent for piercing his subject’s public personae by revealing their submission to their natural human instincts. During his thought-provoking Client 9, Gibney questioned the ethics of Wall Street. Elliot Spitzer was the person responsible for punishing that corruption on Wall Street, but was soon out of the job after his craving for prostitutes was revealed. Do one’s ideologies for the general good outweigh their personal shortcoming? In We Steal Secrets, Assange is the secret teller, but is also the secret keeper.
Overall, We Steal Secrets is another addition to Gibney’s excellent portfolio of hard-hitting documentaries. There are images that will be hard to shake, but you will also find yourself rooting for some unlikely heroes. You will also think twice about who you tell your secrets to.