Sometimes it takes a feature-length documentary to stitch together a story we think we already know.
Such was the case with several docs at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival, including the eye-opening films “The Trials of Muhammad Ali” (with revelatory footage of Ali’s rarely seen Broadway show “Buck White”), “Terms and Conditions May Apply” (aka the real “Social Network”) and “Dirty Wars” (welcome to the drone wars).
At 130 minutes, Alex Gibney’s “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks” is one of the longest recent docs, and it needs the extra minutes to explore a complex moral problem.
When does a whistle-blower become a traitor? Does one inevitably become the other? Or is that just public perception? Does it matter that partisan politics plays a huge role?
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Gibney interviewed neither of his key subjects: U.S. Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, who leaked classified military documents (he’s currently facing a court-martial at Ford Meade, Md.), and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who helped spread the information over the Internet.
The latter is also detained — at the Ecuadorean embassy in London. But while he appeared (via satellite) on Bill Maher’s HBO show, “Real Time,” Assange turned down the opportunity to engage in an interview with Gibney. No matter.
Gibney has done such a resourceful job of storytelling that he bypasses the need for a direct interview with either man. He also allows us to sense his own shifting feelings.
Similar shifts have emerged in the debate about another whistle-blower, Edward Snowden. His case may eventually be tackled by a filmmaker as talented and evenhanded as Gibney. In the meantime, “We Steal Secrets” provides an inspiring model.
John Hartl: email@example.com