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Edelstein: Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets Looks at WikiLeaks and the Tragedy of the Modern Hacker

Before I saw Alex Gibney’s documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, I figured Gibney would be kicking the same government hornet’s nest already inflamed by his protagonist, Julian Assange — or some other nest, there being so many hornets and soul-sucking ghouls and dark subterranean forces in this and the last presidential administration that we’re practically living in Harry Potter World. But Gibney ended up following his story into other, even weirder areas. He comes to view the whistle-blowers, the cyberguerrillas in the war against all forms of secrecy, from a sort of psycho-anthropological perspective: Here, he says, is how the culture created them. And here’s how it destroys them. By the time this twisty, probing, altogether enthralling movie hits its final notes, the crimes against the Constitution and humanity have been upstaged by personal demons. Which is our woe as well.

Gibney has a great camera subject in the white-locked dreamboat Assange, whom he never gets to interview for reasons recounted onscreen (they’re flabbergasting). But there is plenty of other footage — Assange didn’t used to be camera-shy. A colleague describes him as Mick Jagger — a babe magnet (which would spell trouble). He didn’t begin that way. As a youth, he committed his life to “crushing bastards” — big ones, Goliaths. And this David had and has a hell of a slingshot: access to every transmitted communication on Earth, thanks to a galaxy of cyberpassageways and trapdoors into even the most guarded systems. Eventually, Assange assembles a team of idealistic wizards and proclaims his intentions in high-flown, utopian terms — with a dose of punk: “We’re going to fuck them all; fuck the world and let it flower into something new.”

From an emotional vantage, I have to say I thrilled to WikiLeaks’ revelations of so much mischief—from the chicanery to the outright atrocities. Early on, Gibney shows us what’s at stake: We watch American gunship pilots mow down Reuters journalists whom they take (bizarrely) for terrorists and then spray bullets on a van (a dad taking his kids to school) that rode in to rescue the wounded. (Sample pilot line: “Oh, yeah, look at those dead bastards.”) Former Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs is seen shrugging it off. And so with that shrug it would drop into the void — recounted in newspapers and books and blogs but unaccompanied by all-powerful images of death. But pilots, it turns out, “pass gunship videos like trading cards.” And WikiLeaks can get them. And air them. And so we can all live the horror.

Does Assange, as many on the right and even the left have argued, have blood on his hands? A colleague says it’s odd that critics are more incensed by “speculative blood” than “actual blood.” The New York Times, meanwhile, printed Assange’s most eye-opening batch of secrets and, Gibney shows, promptly backed away from the alliance. For Establishment organs, Assange is poison.

Speaking of organs, was Assange set up by the CIA or some other entity for sexually assaulting two women in Sweden? It’s a tempting conclusion. I found myself wondering if someone dosed him with a drug to induce violence — the conspiratorial mind runs that way. Picketers around the globe see him as a political prisoner. But Gibney’s reporting suggests a more plausible explanation: that the sort of person driven to expose secrets is also prone to paranoia, much of it legitimate, some of it extracurricular.

Which brings us to the heart of the movie, the sad-sack, soda-swilling whistle-blower Bradley Manning, a slight gay man driven by the military’s macho culture into isolation — the kind of solitary exile that allowed him to reflect even more deeply on the crimes he was witnessing. Gibney weaves his story all through We Steal Secrets, a film within a film that eats into your soul. He’s a basket case when we see him go into prison. What kind of shell will be left after so much solitude and torture? Don’t ask Barack Obama. He’s assured by his people it’s all copacetic.

Do you know all this? Much of the material is out there, but Gibney has a talent for creating a one-stop shop for anyone who wants to experience the full scope of this ugly, scary story. It’s not just Assange’s colleagues who talk. A few ex-CIA and Defense Department officials appear surprisingly sympathetic to the abstract idea that there are too many secrets. But what to do about that? We Steal Secrets is a documentary with the overflowing texture of fiction. It’s The Hacker’s Tragedy.

This review was originally published in the May 27, 2013 issue of New York magazine.

Photo: Focus World