Julian Assange: Hero or terrorist? This is the ethical query posed by Alex Gibney's "We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks." The film also asks us to what extent, if any, a democratic government should keep secrets from its citizens under the often abused guise of national security.
These are thorny issues, indeed. That Gibney, the prolific documentary director of such exposes as "Casino Jack and the United- States of Money" (2010), "Freakonomics" (2010) and "Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God" (2012), brings these subjects to light in a coherent and engrossing manner may be accomplishment enough.
The film is composed of archival news footage, footage of the oft-interviewed Assange and interviews with, among others, hacker Adrian Lamo, who first encountered Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army soldier who downloaded hundreds of thousands of classified documents and handed them over to Assange's website WikiLeaks online.
Lamo later turned Manning in to federal authorities. Gibney begins by linking a group in Melbourne, Australia, that the young Assange belonged to and the so-called "wank worm" used in an attempt to sabotage a controversial NASA launch in 1989.
The film is a dual portrait of Assange, a hacker turned investigative journalist who comes across as a talented narcissist, and Manning, who cuts a sad, gender-confused, suicidal figure and describes his fellow soldiers in Iraq as "hypermasculine, trigger-happy rednecks."
The truth is that Assange, who aptly resurrected the term "banksters," did indeed become a "rock star" overnight after making public classified documents concerning the meltdown of Iceland's Kaupthing Bank and the subsequent meltdown of the Iceland economy. In Manning, Assange found the means to become even more famous and a hero to would-be hackers worldwide.
Among the material Manning and Assange made public was a graphic video of the gunning down of Reuters journalists and two children in Baghdad by a U.S. Apache helicopter gunship. The film also explores sexual assault charges - leveled against Assange by the police in Sweden, involving two women, both workers for WikiLeaks.
The film wonders how The New York Times can publish the down-loaded documents, condemn Assange and remain free from government condemnation, while Assange is vilified.
Gibney also asks why Visa and Mastercard block donations to WikiLeaks, but not to the Ku Klux Klan. It remains for the viewer to decide who has "blood on his hands," the whistleblowers uncovering government secrets or the leaders waging the wars and keeping the secrets.