With the Snowden/NSA imbroglio on the front page, the timing is perfect for Alex Gibney's latest doc, this one about the rise (and fall) of WikiLeaks, its star leaker, Pfc. Bradley Manning, and its telegenic frontman, Julian Assange. Gibney excels at these summary films, taking a topic that we've digested only in bits and pieces, and crafting a coherent, provocative and even entertaining story out of all the data.
Compressed into two hours, there are aspects of the WikiLeaks story that wouldn't be out of place in a cheap thriller: cross-dressing, two wars, the Icelandic bank crisis, alleged sexual assaults, and Lady Gaga CDs — plus hackers, politicians, news reporters and one accommodating Ecuadorean.
Gibney interviews many of the key participants, with two exceptions: Manning is in jail and unavailable, but we read his side through his emails sent before and during the leaking; and Assange makes his case through myriad archival interviews. (Assange refused Gibney's request for a direct interview, and it's a last-reel LOL.) The Assange odyssey is particularly melodramatic, recalling antecedents such as Greek drama and Citizen Kane.
But beyond the fascinating recounting of what WikiLeaks did are the larger questions of what it all means. Where does freedom to know meet the need to protect? Technology abets leakers as easily as it does the hiders. Who gets to steal secrets? (The film's title is a boast from former NSA and CIA head Michael Hayden.) And, as we're kicking around today, what distinguishes a whistleblower/hero from a criminal/villain, and what, if any, impact do such revelations really have? We're likely just at the beginning of this discussion.
The 8 p.m. Tue., June 25, screening will be preceded by a 7 p.m. discussion on access to information, law and journalism, led by Sharon Walsh, editor of PublicSource.