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Review: We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, Sydney Film Festival

Friday 31 May 2013

Review: We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, Sydney Film Festival

Trying to follow the WikiLeaks story can have you nose-diving on a 10 foot wave of information on small web surf – his supporters are vast and Julian Assange has received so much controversial publicity with headlines sea-sawing between hero and villain labels; so much so that it’s hard to get a solid gist on what it’s all really about.

That’s where director and producer Alex Gibney comes in. He is not afraid of tackling controversial and multi-layered stories and he does it well. His previous films have either won or been nominated for Academy Awards; Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer. Through his most recent film, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks he narrates an intriguing story involving WikiLeaks and it’s Australian founder Julian Assange that ultimately becomes the story of America’s Bradley Manning – the overlooked PFC soldier who sourced the horrifying Afghanistan war documents WikiLeaks is famous for.

You know it’s going to be a compelling visual story from the title sequence’s beautifully crafted cyberspace simulation graphics, they also appear again later in the film helping us to comprehend the inner workings of Internet hacking play. Gibney also likes the dramatic and sometimes ironic lyrical effect of songs in his films – Midnight Oil opens the title sequence and there is a cheeky Lady Gaga moment. 

Edited almost as though it’s a sci-fi thriller with hidden camera angles and city time-lapse sequence shots, Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets tells an intriguing story. He has done his research* and included some raw footage from the Afghanistan war that will and is intended to leave most people open-mouthed in silent disgust. But what holds this report of the WikiLeaks story so significant, is the meta narrative it explores with Big Brother topics like the implications and transparency of information, power control and moral dilemmas faced by all involved. 

It is no secret that documentaries can be pretty exhausting. But as Gibney tackles a serious block of living history – Manning’s court case in the USA is scheduled to commence on June 3 of this year - he also gives us room to breathe with clever allusions to situations in popular media like Star Trek and The Wizard of Oz. There is even a Simpsons satire where Julian Assange made a guest appearance in their 500th episode. ( What’s missing though, is the scene where Marge asks Julian for his recipe at a barbecue and he replies 'I never reveal my sauces'.

The source who was revealed by WikiLeaks’ Adrian Lamo, Bradley Manning is represented not by the common camera reel but by only his words typed out letter by letter on the screen where the audience can read and empathise with his instant messages complete with acronyms *hugs *, spelling errors and emoticons. :D. If you’re not a fan of subtitles or have terrible eyesight the amount of reading in the film could turn you off, but surprisingly this technique captures the isolated soldier’s train of thought in a way an ordinary dialogue probably could not.

The film’s sound composer, Will Bates creates a suspenseful rhythm of sound effects that build as Manning reveals more about himself. People tend to be more comfortable bearing their souls and secrets in a faceless way to strangers in cyberspace than they would in real life, which opens up a whole other can of worms.

We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks explores the consequences of our most beloved man: Mr. Internet and keeping governments in check. It’s a sitting that ends with your mind whirling in newly appointed knowledge and big world questions.

Part of the Sydney Film Festival, watch film advance screenings on the 12th and 15th of June ahead of it’s Australian release on the 4th of July - America’s Independence Day.


*WikiLeaks has rebutted the film’s portrayal of facts line-by-line. 

- Lauren Della Marta