There’s a thing that sometimes happens to copy editors, the workhorses who do the final grammar cleanup, general fine-tuning, and, sometimes, miracle-working before a story goes to print: An editor higher on the food chain will receive a disheveled manuscript from a writer, make a few halfhearted tweaks, and pass it along with a note that says “Fix.”
Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks may as well come with a note saying “Fix,” though that’s not completely Gibney’s fault. The story he tells, that of WikiLeaks’ founder, raconteur and alleged sexual offender Julian Assange, is outlandishly complicated, peopled not with clear-cut good and bad guys but mostly imperfect individuals who hover in between. There’s emotionally fragile Bradley Manning, the Army intelligence analyst who passed sensitive military and diplomatic files along to Assange. There’s erstwhile hacker Adrian Lamo, who accepted Manning’s online friendship only to betray him. And there are the New York Times, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel, three publications that banded together to release information purloined by WikiLeaks—and somehow got off scot-free in the resulting government brouhaha, while Manning was arrested and imprisoned, in abominable conditions, for his alleged crimes.
No one looks to documentaries—or at least no one should—for hard and fast answers, and in this case Gibney, a prolific and skilled documentarian, marshals and organizes a raft of information as deftly as anyone could wish. But his conclusions are murkier than they might be. While he hints that the information revealed by those three publications probably didn’t endanger any American lives—much of it, if not all, was available through other channels—he takes a less definitive stand on the basic principle that some leaks could endanger lives. And while Americans should be aware of torture and other miscarriages of justice, Assange states in footage included here that he doesn’t care if innocent people die—getting information to the public is the most important thing.
Gibney seems to admire Assange, at least a little, in the beginning. But by the end he makes it clear that if Assange was ever completely earnest about his goals and ideals, his ensuing fame turned him into a pompous jerk. At the time of filming, Assange was avoiding extradition to Sweden—two women there have accused him of sexual assault—and availing himself of the largesse of an English patron with a lavish country spread in Norfolk.
When Gibney approached Assange for an interview, the fugitive demanded an exorbitant sum. (Information wants to be free; legal services don’t.) Gibney refused, of course, but he did obtain footage of Assange tromping through the countryside in wellies and a hacking jacket, looking well accustomed to the life of a country gent. Meanwhile, Manning faces charges that could keep him in prison for 20 years, or possibly life. That irony isn’t lost on Gibney, but he tiptoes around it too delicately as he navigates this whole sorry mess. We Steal Secrets is an evenhanded survey of this thorny territory. But is a strong point of view really such a bad thing? The movie may leave you feeling lost and confused. Fix. Please.