However sophisticated we may think ourselves, most of us still find it hard to approach any public figure – politician, activist, dissident – without wondering whether that person is a goodie or a baddie. It’s a silly business, of course. There aren’t too many Hitlers. There are even fewer Ghandis.
It is to Alex Gibney's credit that, in this absorbing but often frustrating documentary on Julian Assange, he makes no serious attempt to place the WikiLeaks founder in either camp. Supporters make their case. Detractors make theirs.
Most hitherto unaligned viewers may, however, find themselves siding with Guardian journalist Nick Davies. After collaborating with Assange on the release of documents pertaining to the Afghan and Iraq Wars, Davies found himself knocked sideways by the Swede's slippery grasp of journalistic ethics. His current confliction seems entirely understandable.
The people who come out of the film worst are those who allow ideology to overpower reason. To the right, various political and media blowhards call for Assange’s execution as a war criminal. To the left (and libertarian right), blinkered activists assert as unquestioned fact – without any apparent evidence – that the Swedish women who accused Assange of sexual assault are liars in the employ of the CIA (or some other ill-defined “them”).
So, We Steal Secrets (whose title is, ironically, uttered by a former CIA chief, not a WikiLeaks representative) is good on the moral and political miasma that continues to surround Julian Assange. An impressive range of talking heads – though not that attached to Assange himself – walk us through the hacker's rise from anarchist prankster to international crusader. He gains renown after happening upon information on the Icelandic banking collapse. He secures proper notoriety when Bradley Manning, a troubled US military computer wonk, passes on secrets relating to the war in Iraq. The slipperiness remains apparent throughout.
Unfortunately, the film fatally lacks structure and is tremendously short on character. Manning’s story is dropped and then, at a seemingly random point, picked up again. The graphics are crude. the editing routine.
Having recently released documentaries on clerical abuse, Mario Cuomo, Park Avenue, Lance Armstrong and, now, WikiLeaks, Gibney seems in danger of becoming an actualité machine. The movies are all interesting. They are all factually sound. But none shows much sign of original thinking. This director needs to slow down.