Oscar-winner Alex Gibney isn’t called the hardest working man in documentaries without reason. It’s not uncommon for him to churn out more than one feature-length film in a given year, and unlike Woody Allen, they all manage to be exceptionally good. His first of two 2013 docs, “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks,” more than hits the sweet spot.
Gibney tackles the politically charged and highly controversial subject of Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks, a site committed to publishing information that powerful figures would rather be kept under wraps. But unlike Gibney’s films tackling a pretty clear-cut right and wrong, such as his chronicle of Elliot Spitzer in “Client 9,” the ethics and morality of “We Steal Secrets” are incredibly murky. This masterful steering through foggy gray area makes the film a perfect pick for my “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”
The documentary also provides a great blend of two very different narrative styles, the individual portrait and the issues-based landscape of their broader intellectual context. Gibney gives us plenty of biographical information on Assange, shedding light on his background and thus allowing us to better make sense of him. Yet even with all this knowledge, he still remains a question mark. That is not to insult Gibney’s filmmaking but rather to complement it – he casts Assange as neither hero nor villain, simply a man who has made choices that we can interpret in a variety of ways.
As Assange fundamentally changes the nature of geopolitics, it is certainly a fact that he pushes the world in the direction of being more transparent. Gibney fills “We Steal Secrets” with commentators on both sides of the privacy debate, with a passionate and well-informed case being made for each. Ultimately, the choice of whether secrets are good, necessary, or justifiable is left up to the viewer. And after Gibney’s powerful documentary, not forming some kind of philosophy is simply not an option. One can only hope he has something similar in mind about Edward Snowden…