Filmmaker Alex Gibney (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”) tries to be fair — and succeeds — but most of what we learn about Assange isn’t especially flattering, even if you approve of what he has done in the name of openness. The portrait Gibney paints, by talking to supporters, detractors and former co-workers, is of an ideologue whose concerns about the theoretical access to unfettered data blinded him, in some cases, to the very real negative consequences of that access.
At best, Assange comes across as something of a noble jerk, a man who doesn’t care about embarrassing public figures who have done wrong. At worst, he comes across as a callous sociopath, someone who wouldn’t hesitate to publish unredacted details of military operations that might actually get people killed, only to lie about it after the fact by claiming that WikiLeaks had “systems” in place to prevent potentially harmful disclosures. There weren’t, according to several seemingly knowledgeable individuals, including Assange’s former WikiLeaks colleagues.
The most delicious irony of the film is that Assange — that champion of free information — has by the end of the film become as tight-lipped as a clam. As one interview subject notes, Assange recently began making associates sign a nondisclosure agreement that includes a multimillion-dollar penalty for leaking information that WikiLeaks hasn’t yet published.
Yet there’s another character in “We Steal Secrets” whose story looms almost as large as Assange’s. That’s Bradley Manning, the geeky U.S. Army private who is being court-martialed for leaking the helicopter video (dubbed “Collateral Murder”) and the State Department cables to Assange’s site. Gibney’s film also closely examines Manning’s motivations.
It’s hard to come away from “We Steal Secrets” with any conclusion other than this: As troubled as Manning evidently was — a military misfit who suffered from anxiety and gender-identity issues — his crime seems to have been that he genuinely cared too much. It’s arguable that he was a whistleblower in the purest sense of the word, someone inspired to right wrongs, even if his own actions weren’t legal.