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Originally published Thursday, June 13, 2013 at 5:06 AM

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Alex Gibney: WikiLeaks film tells a ‘spectacular’ story

An interview with filmmaker Alex Gibney, whose latest documentary, “We Steal Secrets,” tells the intriguing story of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and whistle-blower Bradley Manning.

Special to The Seattle Times

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‘We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks’

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The last time Alex Gibney visited the Seattle International Film Festival, he had recently won an Oscar for best documentary (“Taxi to the Dark Side”) and was promoting his latest nonfiction feature (“Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson”).

Last month, Gibney was back at SIFF with “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks,” which tells the morally complex tale of two now-famous whistle-blowers: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and U.S. Army Pvt. Bradley Manning.

“I was busy at the time (it was offered to me), but I couldn’t really turn it down,” said Gibney. “It was just too spectacular and important a story.” It also took some juggling to get it down to a reasonable length.

“Our first cut was three and a half hours,” he said. “We felt we had to track a number of different characters, and in addition there was so much context. You can’t really understand this story unless you understand a little bit about the surveillance state.”

At times he felt he’d been hijacked by “this wild global thriller, and you had to follow all the trails. Actually we dropped quite a few of them. Cutting it down, you’ve got to make some tough choices. If it doesn’t hurt, you’re not doing your job.”

In the case of Assange, “I saw his story at the beginning as kind of a simple David and Goliath story. I think by the end I saw it as something different, something closer to Icarus, or something more Shakespearean: a character who ends up becoming the very thing he set out to oppose.”

In the case of Manning, who is accused of releasing classified documents about U.S. military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, “I came into that story where he had been rather caricatured, as just a flighty individual who leaked these documents in a fit of pique. I no longer believe that’s true. I think that he had a pretty strong political conscience. I think he was troubled; he was going through a personal crisis, but I think that was used early on by the military as a smoke screen.”

In both cases, he’d changed his mind about both men by the time the film was completed.

“Sometimes you discover these things,” he said. “It’s kind of the beauty and the glory of documentary. ... Sometimes of course you plan things in advance and it works out, but it wasn’t always that way in this case.”

Since Gibney’s visit to Seattle, of course, another major leak has made headlines: Edward Snowden’s unauthorized release of top-secret information about U.S. surveillance programs.

Probably the most prolific documentary filmmaker on the planet, Gibney always has several projects going at once. He’s been working on a Lance Armstrong documentary for five years, he’s completed a feature about ice hockey (“The Last Gladiators”) and a film about Roman Catholic Church scandals (“Mea Maxima Culpa”).

“The shooting never stops, and the stories never stop,” he said. “I didn’t know at the beginning of this film that Julian Assange was going to end up at the Ecuadorean embassy. You never know.”

John Hartl:

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