In François Truffaut's seriocomedy The Man Who Loved Women, the hero writes his autobiography and submits the manuscript to a publisher. We witness a discussion among the employees of the publishing house, who complain that they have no idea how to feel about this womanizing, skirt-chasing author -- if they should love him or hate him. They point out that in certain chapters he comes across as sympathetic, and at other times like a narcissistic, philandering heel. Then one of the employees (Brigitte Fossey) champions the memoir, arguing that the ambiguous tone is the chronicle's overarching strength -- "you aren't sure how to react to Bertrand -- it's exactly like life."
That's how one feels after watching Alex Gibney's cunning, masterfully gauged documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks. At the movie's center is a complex profile of modern rogue Julian Assange, founder of the website WikiLeaks.com. As anyone who has followed the organization in the news will know, it prides itself on releasing hundreds of thousands of covert government documents to the public, which has many upshots and not a few inherent dangers. Unsurprisingly, some perceive Assange as a contemporary hero, while others detest and resent him, a few even branding him as an Information Age terrorist.
One might expect a documentary treatment of Assange to resemble a polemic on one side of the fence or another. To Gibney's credit, it does not. The film opens by striking chords that portray Assange favorably -- a heartbreaking recap of a USAF-enacted annihilation in the Middle East that accidentally butchered several civilians and would have stayed buried under the rug were it not for WikiLeaks' muckraking. It would be difficult to understate the genius of publicizing this devastation. Not unlike the Marilyn Monroe spread that helped Hugh Hefner make Playboy a household name, Assange's much ballyhooed disclosure of the massacre dropped WikiLeaks into the center of the global media spotlight and engendered sympathy and support among millions who had never heard of the organization up until that time.
Then, later in the picture, we move into the darker side of Assange's personality, notably his alleged rapes of two women in Swedish hotel rooms. Gibney's interpretation of this is straightforward and unflinching: He suggests that the widespread perception of the sexual assaults as a CIA-engendered slander, designed to damn and discredit Assange, is in fact a brilliant double fake-out, a diabolical machination by a very culpable criminal who is using CIA-themed lies as a smoke screen to distract the public and media from his own guilt. It's an ingenious deduction, and one that Gibney lays out with the hand of a master. And when we get the hilarious news that Assange agreed to appear in the film only on the condition that Gibney pay him one million dollars to cover the costs of his court trials (a request that Gibney denied), it drives home our impression of the subject's wiliness and points to the plausibility of the director's argument about the CIA lore.
Per the film's title, it doesn't begin and end with a portrait of Assange; it sets out to give us the whole sprawling, torturous history of WikiLeaks itself. And that's a spellbinding story, loaded with more narrative twists and an assortment of more fantastic real-life characters than most novelists could ever dream of offering. The movie has some of the same qualities that Robert Lindsey's nonfiction tome The Falcon and the Snowman had -- you watch this story unfolding, populated by characters who are mesmerizingly weird, and have to remind yourself that none of this is fictitious. We meet a whole host of these individuals, from Bradley Manning, the clinically lonely, transsexual Army soldier who released tens of thousands of CIA files to a complete stranger on the Internet, to Adrian Lamo, the slimy computer hacker who shamelessly sold Manning out to the government. Not all of these people agreed to appear in the picture, of course; Manning in particular is -- unsurprisingly -- nowhere to be seen. But even when such an absence confronts him, Gibney manages to fluidly work around it with supplemental material (such as on-camera re-creations of the e-correspondence between Manning and Lamo) that more than bridges the gaps.
The documentary bounds along, rife with the same sort of thrill of discovery that Errol Morris' films give us: We never feel that Gibney is relaying the account to us, but that we're uncovering each new development along with him as if we're all on the same voyage together. The movie is so beautifully crafted and realized that it might well be called flawless. And though it clocks in at 127 minutes, it feels one-tenth that long; you quickly find yourself wishing that it would never end.