How does one construct a portrait that’s so dependent on a slippery figure? Over the course of Alex Gibney’s documentary on the rise and fall of WikiLeaks, the site’s white-haired founder, Julian Assange, is referred to as a “humanitarian anarchist,” a “transparency radical,” a “political prisoner” and, courtesy of Newt Gingrich, an “enemy combatant.” Despite these various descriptions, it’s impossible to get a bead on this enigmatic alpha male—which is why Gibney wisely gives us a fleshed-out beta in the form of Bradley Manning for comparison. The more we get to know the former Army intelligence analyst and accused traitor—mainly via onscreen conversations rendered in the paranoia-inducing MS-DOS–ish text—the bigger the gap looms between a righteous whistle-blower and “the new Mick Jagger,” who’d publish declassified military documents in the name of self-promotion.
You can’t blame Gibney for defining this blank-slate icon via his remorseful twin; you can take the documentarian to task, however, for thinking that cheesy stylistic choices will somehow enliven dry-to-a-fault journalism. His functional, talking-heads-heavy approach becomes flat quickly, but when the alternative is suffering through War Games footage representing hacker culture (ugh), a barely justifiable use of Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” (double ugh) and a gunshot sound effect over a suicidal text message (deal breaker!), well…you’d be surprised how much you miss the film’s earlier just-the-facts dullness. You’ll leave knowing slightly more about the who, what and why of WikiLeaks; you’ll also wish the whole shebang didn’t fell like such a tone-deaf data dump overall.
Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear