Where 'We Steal Secrets,' The Wikileaks Film, Falls Short

The high-profile documentary We Steal Secrets:The Story of Wikileaks expanded into wider release in theaters and video-on-demand on Friday. Which would seem to be fortuitous timing, given this week's revelations that the NSA has been rifling through email and personal documents stored by Internet giants like Google and Apple and collecting months of call-related data from Verizon.

And yet We Steal Secrets, which sets out to show how the post-9/11 American security state collided with the rise of global connectivity and social media, regrettably fails to probe what it all means. The documentary, directed by the undeniably talented (and Oscar-winning) Alex Gibney, doesn't even bother to ask - much less answer - the biggest questions raised by the entire Wikileaks saga, such as:

  • When does purportedly protective surveillance overreach, threatening personal privacy and constitutional protections?
  • Is the U.S. safer because of Wikileaks? Or more democratic?
  • Is it even possible to keep state secrets anymore?
  • Where should we draw the line between government transparency and legitimate security?

Instead, We Steal Secrets devotes an inordinate amount of time to Assange himself - in particular, to the sexual assault allegations lodged against him in Sweden. (Those formed the basis for an extradition warrant that forced Assange to seek refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he's now lived for more than a year.) Such charges are, of course, serious in their own right. But in the context of this film, they amount to a distraction from the much bigger issues at stake.

People, Not Machines

The film traces the creation of the Wikileaks site, focusing primarily on Assange's troubled past and conflicted present. It then quickly touches on several of Wikileaks' greatest hits - the so-called "collateral murder" video from Iraq, the release of State Department diplomatic cables spanning decades, and leaked documents from the financial industry following the 2008 financial collapse.

The prim, arrogant, self-serving Assange, as the film depicts him, was the right person at the right time to seize upon the opportunities presented by a new world, one in which everything is online and therefore accessible. Wikileaks was a audacious, highly visible attempt to encourage the uncovering and exposure of long-guarded secrets inside the halls of established power, both government and corporate.

Unexpectedly, the long-running U.S. war in Iraq provided Assange with just the opportunity he needed - in particular, when a tormented Army private named Bradley Manning enters the story. Portrayed as a mostly tragic, slightly heroic figure, Manning served unhappily in Iraq, tormented by his objections to the war and his own uncertainty about his sexual identity.

He was assigned the job of "intelligence analyst" and given near-unfettered access to shocking amounts of rather shocking military data. Which he then proceeded to hand over to Wikileaks, at least until he was arrested a few months later after an online "buddy" he'd confided in turned him in. (Manning's espionage trial, by the way, also started this week.)

Manning's story demands to take center stage, but unfortunately, the film fails to deliver. Wikileaks was as much a vehicle for Manning as it was the instigator of his deeds. A young man who seemed to have lived his entire life utterly unsure of his identity sought to define himself through a singular stunning act. For good or ill, he succeeded.

Sadly, all this is underplayed in We Steal Secrets.

Missed Opportunity

Meanwhile, the larger implications of Wikileaks and what it has wrought go largely unexplored. The documentary fails to give us the full story - or even a very good story - on Manning, government secrecy, the explosion of personal digitized data, the tension between security and privacy, or what all of that portends. 

We Steal Secrets features war, leaks, terrorism, cover-ups, social media, identity crises, intrigue and an upending of traditional power structures. Yet after a well-paced introduction, it somehow barely manages to holds the viewer's interest. Just one more sad, inexplicable failing in a saga replete with sad, inexplicable failings.

Images courtesy of We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks