Assange Unmasked; ‘Midnight’ Thrills; ‘Hangover’: Movies

Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney untangles the complex Wikileaks saga and founder Julian Assange’s brilliant, dark mind in the fascinating “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks.”

Neither Assange nor his most famous leaker, conscience-stricken Pfc. Bradley Manning, cooperated with the film. Assange wanted $1 million. Manning is in prison. Yet “Secrets” teases out unforgettable portraits of the two very different men.

Gibney (“Taxi to the Dark Side”) begins the tale well before hacking entered the lexicon. In 1989, just prior to a Space Shuttle launch, NASA computers were infiltrated by a worm bearing the cryptic message, “You talk of times of peace for all, and then prepare us for war.”

Widely believed to have been created by an incipient group of Australian hackers, the worm was an early lob from the brainy, pro-transparency Melbourne computer subculture that would produce Assange.

“I like crushing bastards,” the white-haired Assange proclaims early in “Secrets.” In 2006 he creates WikiLeaks, a website that seeks and publishes secret documents.

Early targets ranged from toxic-waste dumpers and financial institutions (“banksters,” in Assange’s terminology) to the Church of Scientology.

But it was a 2007 video of an American helicopter strike in Baghdad that got the world’s attention. Civilians, including children and two Reuters journalists, were mowed down.

Broken Soul

The images, along with hundreds of thousands of other documents, were leaked by Manning, a conscience-stricken U.S. Army private and self-described “broken soul.”

Troubled by what he saw -- and distraught over gender-identity issues and a profound sense of isolation -- Manning blew the whistle. The director takes a decidedly sympathetic approach with Manning, depicted here as a clear case of the punishment not fitting the crime. Now 25, Manning recently pleaded guilty to a variety of charges and faces the possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison.

Assange, meanwhile, had his own troubles. He was accused by two Swedish women of sexual coercion. Rather than face extradition to Sweden (and, he fears, the United States on leak-related charges), Assange has accepted political asylum at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he remains.

Deadly Consequences

Gibney is unsparing, presenting Assange as a man with blinders, capable of glibly dismissing the potentially deadly consequences of his actions.

No stranger to TV cameras, the WikiLeaks founder is onscreen throughout, while Manning’s words appear as computer type across the screen, a haunting device for a haunted man.

“I can’t believe,” he writes to the fellow hacker who would soon betray him, “what I’m confessing to you.”

“We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks,” from Focus World, is playing in New York and Los Angeles. Rating: ****1/2 (Evans)

‘Before Midnight’

Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) have spent the summer in Greece with their twins and his son from an earlier marriage. They’ve just put the boy on the plane back to his mother, and you can see the heartbreak on the father’s face.

They talk about it on the drive back from the airport. Then they don’t stop talking. Except for a sun-dappled lunch party, for two hours it’s just the two of them and their words.

In “Before Midnight” -- as in “Before Sunrise” (1995) and “Before Sunset” (2004), all three directed and co-written by Richard Linklater -- Delpy and Hawke wear these roles like skin. It would be easy to believe they’re a real couple, from their easy rapport and the fury that erupts --- the kind that builds over time -- when the lid of civility comes off.

They argue about who does more around the house, who’s sacrificed more, who’s been unfaithful. Even as you see how Celine has been roped by a slob into the role of caregiver, you may roll your eyes with Jesse at this bourgeois Parisian’s claim to be the victim of oppression.

Yet you also see why his calm insistence that he’s the rational one makes her so crazy that she wants to smash what they have. This argument, it becomes clear, may not end as inconclusively as the ones before.

Maybe it’s because Jesse and Celine are drawn with such specificity (Delpy and Hawke both worked on the screenplay) that they can stand in for anyone who has ever resented a spouse. You feel how much is at stake when they argue, how real the damage they inflict, and you can’t shake it off. It’s a spectacular movie.

“Before Midnight,” from Sony Pictures Classics, is playing in New York, Los Angeles and Austin. Rating: ***** (Seligman)

‘Hangover III’

Director/co-writer Todd Phillips seems so happy to have reunited his stars from the 2009 boys-on-a-bender comedy that for “The Hangover Part III” he forgot to invite a script.

Crime lord Marshall (John Goodman) kidnaps one of the gang (Justin Bartha, mostly off-screen as usual), demanding the other three (Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis) track down psychopath gold-thief Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong).

Cooper and especially Helms barely register, their boredom with the franchise bordering on disdain. Cooper repeatedly asks a question that, sans obscenities, translates to “Who cares?” No one here, apparently.

“The Hangover Part III,” from Warner Bros. Pictures, is playing across the U.S. Rating: (No stars) (Evans)

What the Stars Mean:

***** Fantastic
**** Excellent
*** Good
** So-So
* Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Greg Evans and Craig Seligman are critics for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are their own.)

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