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Movie review: Assange hard to pin down in ‘We Steal Secrets’

Julian Assange, the 40-year-old WikiLeaks founder, arrives at the Supreme Court in London, Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2012. Assange's legal team is making a final effort at Britain's Supreme Court to avoid his extradition to Sweden. Assange is wanted by Swedish authorities over sex crimes allegations stemming from a visit to the country in 2010. He denies any wrongdoing.(AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

By Sean P. Means

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Jun 13 2013 03:15PM
Updated Jun 14, 2013 06:53PM

In his new documentary, "We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks," Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney ("Taxi to the Dark Side") tries to construct a portrait of one of the most intriguing and confounding characters in recent global history — and completely fails at the task.

Part of this is the fault of the subject, Julian Assange, the charismatic and enigmatic founder of the secret-spilling website WikiLeaks. Gibney did not interview Assange for the film, though he tried. Late in the movie, Gibney says negotiations stalled when Assange, who clearly hasn’t seen the budget of the average independent film, asked for $1 million for an on-camera interview.

But Gibney’s failure has more to do with the contradictory nature of what people have to say about Assange. These people include former colleagues, journalists who worked alongside him uncovering intelligence secrets, ex-officials of the U.S. government who decry those disclosures, and even one of the two women at the heart of the sexual-assault allegations that have driven Assange to seek asylum in Ecuador’s London embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden.

Gibney’s film primarily focuses on Wikileaks’ work in 2010 divulging classified material related to the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. First came a 2007 video of a U.S. Army helicopter attack in Baghdad in which more than a dozen civilians, including two Reuters journalists, were killed. Then came the big drops: hundreds of thousands of classified documents, channeled through five major news organizations including The New York Times and Britain’s The Guardian. The documents detailed U.S. mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with embarrassingly candid State Department assessments of nearly every country on the globe.

Gibney, lining up his research and interviews, presents Assange alternately as a hero of free speech, a sexual predator, a rascal tweaking the nose of the world’s military and intelligence agencies, and an irresponsible criminal whose disclosures could get soldiers killed.

Which is the real Assange? This movie cannot say. It’s as if Gibney threw up his hands, put the whole mess in the audience’s lap and said, "Here, YOU figure this guy out."

Gibney is kinder to Pfc. Bradley Manning, the then-22-year-old U.S. Army intelligence analyst who leaked the Iraq/Afghanistan documents to WikiLeaks – and whose court-martial trial began earlier this month.

Manning is depicted as a young man whose personal crisis — wrestling with his gender issues while serving in an army still observing a "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy — coincided with an attack of conscience over American actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Gibney finds the tension of his film by contrasting Manning’s guileless belief in free speech with Assange’s shadowy behavior. How two opposites became forever linked is a makings of a rich historical drama, for which "We Steal Secrets" is an intriguing first draft.

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