The trial of PFC Bradley Manning -- who provided the renegade website WikiLeaks with the 700,000 classified U.S. documents it released beginning in 2010 -- got under way in Maryland this week. Which is probably bad for Manning but good for "We Steal Secrets," Alex Gibney's provocative exploration of a scandal that has come to focus less on the leaks and more on the treatment of Manning. Even President Barack Obama's State Department spokesman, P.J. Crowley, who is interviewed in the film, admitted that Manning had been treated with unnecessary cruelty (after which Crowley had to resign). As the film shows, no one has managed to establish what damage the leaks themselves caused, other than embarrassment to U.S. officials and the toppling of a couple of Mideast dictatorships.
The Oscar-winning Gibney ("Taxi to the Dark Side") certainly harbors sympathy for Manning, who seems to have operated out of both conscience and an anxious confusion over his sexual identity. But the director has far fewer favorable inclinations toward Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder who is currently a guest of the Ecuadoran Embassy in London, avoiding extradition to Sweden over rape and assault charges. Gibney speaks to one of Assange's Swedish accusers, who makes a good case for herself, but it's his interviews with Assange associates -- the Guardian's Nick Davies, or Manning's betrayer, the medication-addled hacker Adrian Lamo -- that paint a portrait of a provocateur too distanced from real life to really care what damage he might do, an ideologue whose perceived enemies were ideologues.
"We Steal Secrets" (a quote from former CIA/National Security Agency chief Michael Hayden, not Assange, who isn't interviewed) is more or less a requiem for WikiLeaks, which has been undone by personalities and power. But the story around it is alive and electric and required viewing for anyone trying to formulate an opinion on just what the whole mess was all about.
PLOT Documentary about the biggest breach in U.S. intelligence history, and the very strange man behind it
RATING R (some disturbing violent images, language and sexual material)
BOTTOM LINE Engaging, kinetic, revelatory and unexpected