LOS ANGELES — Prolific documentary-maker Alex Gibney delivers a gripping account of the wins and losses of hard-charging idealism on the front lines of the information wars in "We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks." Exhaustively researched and balanced in its view of the controversial key player, the film slips in ahead of DreamWorks' dramatic take on the exploits of Julian Assange, "The Fifth Estate," which is currently shooting.
Unfolding like an espionage thriller but with a methodical journalistic skill at organizing a mountain of facts, the film raises stimulating questions about transparency and freedom of information in a world in which governments and corporations have plenty to hide. It should be a magnet for op-ed coverage.
In addition to WikiLeaks founder Assange, Gibney devotes almost equal time to the fascinating figure of U.S. Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, allegedly the source of the largest volume of classified military documents leaked by Assange. It's an awkward irony that one of WikiLeaks' first major coups was a 2007 video showing a U.S. Apache helicopter mowing down unarmed civilians in Baghdad, released under the title "Collateral Murder."
Manning in a sense was also collateral damage. A brilliant but lonely tech geek from Bible-Belt Oklahoma struggling with gender-identity issues, he enlisted to get a government-funded college education. But his homosexuality made him a target for sergeants determined to "beat the macho into him."
Despite a supervisor's recommendation that he not be deployed, Manning went to Iraq as an intelligence analyst. But his isolation and unhappiness led him to dig deeper into easily cracked classified military files. Distressed by what he found there, he reached out to WikiLeaks.
While Assange has repeatedly asserted that WikiLeaks' encryption systems ensure that its sources remain undetectable, the fact emerges that Manning took all the risks as well as the fall. He was betrayed by fellow hacktivist Adrian Lamo and held for almost a year at Quantico under conditions of extreme duress before being transferred to Fort Leavenworth, where he awaits trial in July. Hard evidence that the information spread by him has led to casualties or compromised missions remains elusive, according to Gibney's film. Humiliation of the Pentagon appears to have been the bigger issue.
Manning's story is framed by a thorough, more or less chronological account of Assange's rise and fall. The early sections dovetail with the dramatic depiction in Robert Connolly's TV movie "Underground." Operating under the codename Mendax as part of a small hacker group in Melbourne, Australia, called "The International Subversives," Assange became a dedicated proponent of information-sharing.
While no link has been verified, Gibney speculates in the opening of "We Steal Secrets" that Assange may have been behind the cheekily dubbed WANK (Worms Against Nuclear Killers), a virus that entered NASA's network in the run-up to the 1989 launch of its plutonium-powered Jupiter probe, Galileo.
The doc then traces Assange's success in exposing corrupt banking practices during Iceland's economic collapse in 2009-10, which led to heated public protests and provided the budding whistleblower with a new national base and sympathetic allies. Other early WikiLeaks efforts focused on tax evasion in Swiss banking, government corruption in Kenya and toxic-waste dumping.
Assange hooked up with like-minded German technology activist Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who became his right-hand man. When the incoming load of U.S. military and diplomatic secrets started burning a hole in Assange's pocket, WikiLeaks entered into a media alliance that included The Guardian and The New York Times to disseminate the information, much of which cast American intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan in a damning light.
However, when Manning's actions were uncovered and WikiLeaks became an international hot potato, those broadsheets both distanced themselves from Assange - notably so in a critical New York Times Magazine profile.
During this time, allegations of sexual assault surfaced against Assange in Sweden, which the WikiLeaks founder and many of his supporters have tried to paint as a fabricated smear campaign, possibly orchestrated by the CIA. A British legal rep for Assange amusingly calls it "a surreal Swedish fairy tale only missing the trolls." But the film implies with what seems like reasonable certitude that the conspiracy angle is bogus.
The unraveling of WikiLeaks was accelerated when major credit-card companies and PayPal bowed to pressure to stop processing donations to the organization, effectively setting up a financial blockade. The legal costs incurred in fighting Assange's extradition order to Sweden ate up much of WikiLeaks' remaining funds. Its founder lived in semi-isolation in England before landing at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he remains holed up.
Gibney provides no shortage of support for Assange's noble mission to keep governments and corporations in check. But the film also digs into the questionable ethics and hypocrisy of his methods, as well as the ego and paranoia that clashed with his idealism. Domscheit-Berg quit the organization when it became apparent that WikiLeaks had lost control of what information was being spread and how.
There's a suggestion here that once Assange stepped out from undercover, his judgment was impaired by the rock-star seduction of the spotlight, and self-protection gradually trumped other concerns. The strength of the film is that it leaves the audience to decide whether he remains a figure of heroism or recklessness.
Given that "We Steal Secrets" is out less than a year after Gibney's equally dense account of pedophilia in the Catholic church, "Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God," it's clear the filmmaker must have a virtual army of researchers working full-time. The volume of information here is considerable, but Gibney and editor Andy Grieve keep it pacey and accessible, incorporating smart graphics and animation, and a suspenseful score by Will Bates. The film could stand to be tightened by 10 minutes or so, but this is a tremendously fascinating story told with probing insight and complexity.
"We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks," a Focus release, is unrated. Running time: 127 minutes.