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We Steal Secrets - The Story of Wikileaks DVD Review

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#1 of 3 OFFLINE   Kevin EK

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Posted October 01 2013 - 05:30 PM

We Steal Secrets - The Story of Wikileaks DVD Review

We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks presents its evidence on DVD, showcasing the latest documentary work of Alex Gibney. This time out, he’s tackling the real life details around the hacker work of Julian Assange and the materials he exposed about corporate, government and military malfeasance. This is difficult material and Assange becomes an increasingly unsympathetic figure as the documentary moves towards its conclusion. And the punches really don’t get pulled at any point – not for the blows on Assange or on his targets. This is a fascinating documentary about some unsavory material, but it’s worth a viewer’s time – assuming that the viewer is willing to take this journey.


Cover Art


Studio: Anchor Bay

Distributed By: N/A

Video Resolution and Encode: 480P/MPEG-2

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Audio: English 5.1 DD

Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish, French

Rating: R

Run Time: 2 Hrs. 10 Min.

Package Includes: DVD

Disc Type: DVD-9 (dual layer)

Region: 1

Release Date: 09/10/2013

MSRP: $19.98




The Production Rating: 4/5

Alex Gibney is certainly a documentary filmmaker with guts. His prior work includes such films as Taxi to the Dark Side and Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God. So it was probably inevitable that he would get to the explosive story of Julian Assange and Wikileaks. For the uninformed viewer, Julian Assange is one of the most notorious people in the world today, given his hacking groups’ record of infiltrating major computer systems and publishing classified and embarrassing information. Wikileaks itself is notorious for having published a giant trove of classified American material about the Iraq war leaked to them by Army Private Bradley Manning in what has been called the largest security breach in US history. Given his track record, one might think that Gibney would be sympathetic to his subject here, and initially he seems to be. Or at least he seems to enjoy the anarchic glee of the first shots fired by Assange and his fellow hackers in their crusade. But as the documentary moves along, Gibney’s examination becomes more clinical and critical, and the material itself becomes increasingly disturbing. By the end of the piece, the viewer is left with a fractured and unsettling series of impressions of not only Assange and Wikileaks but most prominently of Bradley Manning. The feeling one gets after viewing this piece is not one of satisfaction or of encouragement – it’s more of the opposite feeling.

SPOILERS: Anyone who’s been following the Bradley Manning trial will not be surprised to hear many of the details that come out in this documentary. Nor will anyone who’s followed the travails of Julian Assange at any point during his celebrity/notoriety or his current restriction to the Ecuadorian embassy in London. But when you walk through the materials from Assange’s early work as the hacker “Mendax” to the giant document dump of Manning’s leaked documents, the picture becomes in turns fascinating and deeply disturbing. The Assange of this documentary is seen through archival materials and interviews with others about him, as he did not participate directly and Wikileaks itself has predictably condemned it. The Bradley Manning of this documentary is seen partly through the eyes of his co-workers, partly through the eyes of the people to whom he leaked the material (mostly an emotional Adrian Lamo), and partly through a series of chat animations that play out his online texts for the viewer to see. These are not simple men, either in their actions or in their motivations, and Gibney gets a lot of points for not trying to simplify their stories in any way.

MORE SPOILERS: In the case of Bradley Manning, there is a very real sense of a tortured soul at work here. The chat animations show him to be deeply unhappy about his life and his sexuality, which makes for a toxic mixture in his daily life as an Army Private stationed in Baghdad. While the movie can’t go into exhaustive detail about Manning, there’s enough here to show that he was clearly feeling unable to express himself in any meaningful way. Coupling that with Manning’s extensive computer ability and his access to a treasure trove of classified material is a retroactively obvious recipe for disaster. In the case of Julian Assange, the documentary paints a picture of a brilliant man who has loved the notoriety his hacking exploits have brought him. On the one hand, his work has contributed to a much more open discussion of many different atrocities wrought by governments, businesses and militaries. There is no denying the truth of the horrifying video Wikileaks released of a 2007 massacre by Apache helicopter in Iraq. On the other hand, Assange’s cavalier attitude about the materials with which he is playing is deeply disturbing. As one of his former partners notes, Assange blatantly lied when he told a reporter that Wikileaks was screening documents it released to make sure that people weren’t being endangered. And going from the events that unfolded after the big document release from Manning, Assange’s own cockiness may have done him in – both in his paranoia toward others within Wikileaks and in his alleged unprotected relations with women in Sweden. (There are conflicting stories about exactly how all that occurred, but the interview with one of the women presented in this documentary paints a fairly unpleasant picture of Assange.)

FINAL SPOILERS: By the end of the documentary, the viewer has been surrounded with a wash of computer graphics, text interfaces, old and new interviews and a general sense of unease swirling around the central characters in this story. Julian Assange is last seen, as we know him today, as a virtual prisoner in the embassy of a country he regularly excoriated before his fortunes changed. Bradley Manning is serving a long sentence at Fort Leavenworth for his actions, although he may be eligible for release in a decade or less. (It should be noted that Manning now fully identifies as a female, something the documentary spends a fair amount of time discussing – which is fair, considering that his issues with this and his military status led directly to the actions he took.) Other interviewees for this documentary are known to be living in hiding at this point – from official sources for their hacking actions, from their fellow hackers for their disclosures, or from both at the same time.

At the end of the documentary, I was struck by an old poetic phrase from Walter Scott’s Marmion: “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive!” And what a tangled web did Julian Assange weave with the help of Bradley Manning. They were not practicing to deceive. In fact, they were practicing to do the opposite. And yet, they found themselves entangled in a web just as intricate and just as tangled.

We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks has been released on standard definition DVD as of last month, premiering ahead of the fictional film about Julian Assange coming later this year from Dreamworks. The DVD includes the documentary feature, along with about 25 minutes of deleted scene and 15 minutes of subtitled audio testimony from Bradley Manning’s trial testimony.



Video Rating: 3.5/5  3D Rating: NA

We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks is presented in an anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer that does a solid job of showing the multiple modes of presentation in this documentary. Some of the visual material is computer graphics, including extensive periods of animated texting between Bradley Manning and Adrian Lamo. Some of the material consists of new video interviews with various participants, some of whom have needed to be disguised and shadowed. Some of the material is archival video of Assange and others from various points in his career. The picture transfer shows the best and sometimes worst of all these sources.



Audio Rating: 3.5/5

We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks is presented in an English Dolby Digital 5.1 mix (averaging 448 kbps) that really only uses the surrounds for music, buttressed by the occasional effect. The sound primarily lives in the front channels, as you might expect from a documentary. But there are signs of life from time to time during the more immersive CGI moments.



Special Features Rating: 3/5

The DVD presentation of We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks comes with about 25 minutes of deleted scenes and about 15 minutes of audio testimony by Bradley Manning at his trial.

Deleted Scenes (25:25 Total, Anamorphic) – A total of 6 deleted scenes and scene extensions are presented here in 2.0 sound. I can’t say that there was anything earth shattering in this material. The scenes can be viewed individually or via a “Play All” option.

Manning Testifies (15:23) – This is audio of Bradley Manning’s courtroom testimony from February 28, 2013, with subtitles playing out on a black screen. One might react to Manning’s statements as being fairly technical and bland, or as being pretty unnerving. But this is a powerful rebuttal to those who have accused this movie of not presenting or understanding Manning.

Previews – A menu of previews for other Focus Features movies is available. The movies on the list are Being Flynn, Brokeback Mountain, The American, The Place Beyond the Pines, Eastern Promises, Promised Land, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Debt. The previews can be accessed individually or via a “Play All” option.

Subtitles are available for the film and the deleted scenes, in English, Spanish and French. A full chapter menu is available for the film.



Overall Rating: 4/5

We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks is a profoundly disturbing movie and another solid entry into Alex Gibney’s strong filmography of unflinching documentaries. Without taking sides, it tells an uncompromising story about Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, and the biggest unauthorized release of classified documents in the history of the U.S.. The DVD provides both a solid presentation of the documentary and a chance to listen to 15 minutes of Bradley Manning’s own testimony at his trial this year. For those who are interested in this story and want to learn a little more, this is a good place to start. It will be interesting to see how this material is played out later this year in The Fifth Estate. But watching this documentary is probably a very good way to prep for that experience.


Reviewed By: Kevin EK


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#2 of 3 OFFLINE   Richard Gallagher

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Posted October 04 2013 - 10:14 AM

Thanks for the very thorough review. It is hard to not feel sorry for Bradley Manning, but turning over classified information to people who aren't authorized to see it cannot be tolerated by the military, whatever the person's reasons or personal problems.

 

Does this documentary get into the issue of the advisability of having civilian contractors perform background checks? This has been a topic which has received some attention since the Snowden leaks.


Rich Gallagher

#3 of 3 OFFLINE   Kevin EK

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Posted October 06 2013 - 04:50 PM

They really don't get into the background check idea, although enough about Manning's issues is shown to indicate that there were warning signs everywhere with him.   And to be fair, the documentary doesn't try to justify the conduct of either Manning or Assange.   The gunship footage is shown in its context, but the documentary doesn't present any of these guys as heroes by any means.







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