A real-life cyber-thriller with real-life consequences, Alex Gibney's We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks is a riveting and revelatory documentary that plays out on the ground in Melbourne, London, Baghdad, Stockholm, Reykjavík, and Washington - and everywhere in the thrumming realms of the Internet.

It is the story of Julian Assange, who first ran afoul of the law as a teenager in Australia, charged with hacking into the computer systems of a Canadian telecom company and the U.S. Air Force. In 2006, he launched WikiLeaks, setting out to "shift regime behavior" by releasing classified documents and exposing governments and corporations the world over.

He was a self-styled "transparency radical" - believing that the truth should be out there for all to see, that secrets lead to lies, to oppression, to the compromise of democracy.

And Bradley Manning, a U.S. Army private assigned to an intel unit in Iraq, believed in WikiLeaks, too. So much so that in 2009, he proceeded to release thousands and thousands of documents - a video of a Baghdad helicopter strike in which Reuters journalists, Iraqi civilians, and two children were killed by U.S. gunships; top secret State Department and Pentagon dossiers and e-mail streams - to Assange's site.

And then the Guardian, the New York Times, and Der Spiegel published some of those documents, giving WikiLeaks a legitimate platform - and a new profile and prominence. Assange became a kind of rock star to his fans and followers, and a pesky menace to the Bush and Obama administrations, to governments, banks, and companies worldwide.

Gibney, the Oscar-winning director of Taxi to the Dark Side and documentaries about Enron and Eliot Spitzer, lines up an A-list of experts, observers, cohorts, and adversaries, tracing how Assange's and Manning's worlds collide - virtually, and violently - and how a noble quest for transparency and truth turned into a tale of conspiracy and paranoia.

Manning, whose court martial is underway now, emerges as the more sympathetic of the film's two principals, while Assange is seen transformed: from a digital-era David battling Goliaths to a MacBook-slinging narcissist charged with sexual assault.

It's complicated. And it's fascinating.

Contact Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Steven_Rea. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.inquirer.com/onmovies.