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‘We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks’ is fair and balanced

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange

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Focus World presents a documentary written, directed and narrated by Alex Gibney. Running time: 130 minutes. Rated R (for some disturbing violent images, language and sexual material). Opening Friday at the Music Box.

Updated: July 1, 2013 7:22AM

Filmmaker Alex Gibney is an investigative moralist who zeroes in his lens on injustice. In his latest documentary, “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks,” he delves into the questionable nature of America’s foreign policy and two key players in the WikiLeaks affair. Smartly crafting a lot of incisive research, he delivers serious entertainment.

“We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks” follows Julian Assange, the Australian-born founder of the activist site WikiLeaks, and Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army intelligence specialist stationed in Iraq who turned over military and diplomatic files for that site to publish, along with the New York Times, London’s Guardian and other mainstream media outlets.

Gibney interviews neither Assange, now residing under political asylum inside Ecuador’s embassy in London, nor Manning, who is held in a Department of Defense correctional facility in Kansas. Assange is portrayed via newscasts and other video. Manning comes into focus through his America Online instant messages: “i want people to see the truth,” “it affects everyone on earth” and “i cant believe what im confessing to you.” The recipient of these messages was a hacker-turned-informant responsible for his arrest on May 26, 2010.

Assange is initially admired for designing a site to expose secrets of the powerful. But the media began to attack his character after allegations surfaced of his sexual misconduct in Sweden. Gibney deconstructs this coverage, showing how its leaks work as leverage as well. Now the imperious paranoia of Assange is news, instead of a nation’s misdeeds. In turn, Manning’s ideals get sidelined by his gender-identity issues. Gibney ingeniously reframes the personal and the political.

“WikiLeaks has become what it detests and what it actually tried to rid the world of,” charges Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a former WikiLeaks associate who split from Assange and started his own site, OpenLeaks. (Leaks about WikiLeaks itself discredited WikiLeaks, and WikiLeaks critiqued its leaked transcript of Gibney’s film.)

“Government should be transparent,” declared President Barack Obama on the day after his 2009 inauguration. Assange and Manning view themselves as acting on that principle. “All institutions, all, are engaged in unjust activities,” asserts Assange. About the unclassified, confidential and secret cables that he leaked, Manning texted: “If its a country, and its recognized by the US as a country, its got dirt on it.”

Even as he weighs the impact of implementing that philosophy, Gibney tests his own ethics as a truth-seeking filmmaker. He too targets wielders of corporate, military and political power. Who is “We” in the title “We Steal Secrets”? There’s no need for a spoiler alert, but it’s neither Gibney nor Assange.

Gibney inserts irony with the use of Hollywood clips and song choices. He has pegged his documentaries to various genres: heist, detective and black comedy. His trailer for “We Steal Secrets” quotes a Hollywood Reporter review: “It unfolds like an espionage thriller.” His non-fiction oeuvre, though, recalls Steven Soderbergh’s screen fictions. Both auteurs critique facets of the economy as flaws of character.

Greek tragedy is how Gibney describes his earlier films “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” (2005), “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer” (2010) and “Casino Jack and the United States of Money” (2005). Even the filmmaker’s subjects describe their scandals that way.

Change-the-world idealism is another motif. “We Steal Secrets” uses NASA to frame its story and our world. Gibney begins with 1989 incident about a computer worm and the Galileo satellite launch. Assange, then a Melbourne teenager also known as Mendax, was implicated. Gibney ends with Manning’s chat link to a 1990 photograph of Earth sent by Voyager 1 and quotes astronomer Carl Sagan: “In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”

In accepting the best documentary Oscar for “Taxi to the Dark Side” (2007), Gibney urged: “Let’s hope we can turn this country around, move away from the dark side and back to the light.”

That’s an agenda of transparency that Assange, Manning and Obama share, in theory.

Bill Stamets is a locally based free-lance writer.

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