Chill out, Julian, you come out looking pretty good in 'The Fifth Estate'
The Fifth Estate, Hollywood’s big-budget take on the WikiLeaks saga, opens with a TED-worthy montage depicting the development of communication technology from cave scrapings to iPads. The inclusion of WikiLeaks in our species’s evolutionary course may seem a bit presumptuous, but it’s not completely off-base. Whatever you think of Julian Assange’s approach to the unencumbered flow of classified information, WikiLeaks has had a lasting affect on the world—probably for the better.
In the pantheon of recent tech dramatizations, The Fifth Estate ranks as one of the better ones—definitely more Social Network than Jobs. Based partly on former WikiLeaks spokesman Daniel Domcheit-Berg’s tell-all book, the film centers on WikiLeaks’ rise from startup to global troublemaker.
Yet the film’s central conflict is less about WikiLeaks versus the powers-that-be than about the beef between Domcheit-Berg and Assange that eventually caused a rift in the organization. The film’s source material alone may explain why the real Assange has vehemently disputed the movie’s accuracy.
Last January the British actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who portrays Assange in the movie, tried to meet with the WikiLeaks founder in person. Cumberbatch was rebuffed in a polite yet pointed email (subsequently leaked) in which Julian describes The Fifth Estate as being “based on a deceitful book by someone who has a vendetta against me and my organization.”
Assange goes on to describe the film as a hit piece propagated by a film studio “with ties to powerful interests in the U.S. government.” WikiLeaks then leaked a draft of the film’s screenplay followed by a detailed critique of the film’s assertions.
While Assange may have some reason to take umbrage at the way he is portrayed on film, his anger is misdirected. The film’s version of history is kind to both him and his organization—and with a big studio behind it, it may well end up being the version we all remember.
Let’s start with the not-so-flattering parts. Assange is portrayed, at times, as a deceitful and unstable megalomaniac whose simmering rage stems from his childhood in a hallucinogen-fueled Australian cult.
The film goes on to accuse Assange of spitefully leaking unredacted State Department communications that named confidential informants and other protected sources. The real Assange has denied responsibility for the release of the torrent of unredacted documents to the public, instead placing the blame on a screw-up at the Guardian. (Spiegel Online International has published a fairly dispassionate analysis of the incident.)
On the other hand, the film does Assange’s reputation a huge favor by sidestepping some salacious details of his story. Save for a graphic just before the credits, the film doesn’t mention the sexual misconduct allegations that led to Assange’s holing up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London. Though Assange maintains his innocence in the case—and regardless of the validity of the allegations—it’s a big part of the WikiLeaks story. Presumably, the filmmakers avoided making the allegations a larger element of the story in order to focus on portraying Assange as a flawed revolutionary.
The film is Assange’s best advocate
The filmmakers even give Assange an opportunity to defend himself against the various charges leveled at him by his enemies and by the press—in a roundabout way. A postscript features Cumberbatch as Assange sitting down to a fake interview—and using dialogue that appears to have been lifted directly from interviews with the real Assange.
Probably most importantly, the postscript gives “Assange” a chance to defend his organization against his opponents’ sharpest criticism: that people were harmed by WikiLeaks’ actions.
The way history looks back at Assange and WikiLeaks may pivot on the answer to this question. Undeniably, the unredacted State Department and Afghan war leaks named confidential informants, many of whom were battling oppressive regimes—the very kind of governments WikiLeaks purports to oppose. But WikiLeaks vehemently denies that it has any blood on its hands, and a survey of reputable press sources seems to uphold WikiLeaks’ innocence.
In 2011, former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates stated that a review of the WikiLeaks’ Afghan war leaks, “to date has not revealed any sensitive intelligence sources and methods compromised by this disclosure.” Gates went on to describe the effect of leaked State Department memos as being “fairly modest.” During the trial of WikiLeaker Bradley Manning in August, the U.S. government failed to establish any specific instance where someone was killed as a result of WikiLeaks’ info dumps.
The film includes a scene in which a senior State Department official commands his frantically working underlings to pinpoint ten sources who may find themselves in danger, in order to establish WikeLeaks’ guilt. But by the film’s end, no such incidents have been found. The Fifth Estate therefore lays out WikiLeaks’ strongest defense: If the organization really had blood on its hands, the U.S. government would have been the first to point it out, and it did not do so.
Freedom fighters, of a sort
Information is one of the most powerful forces on the planet. It’s the glue that keeps power structures in place—but it can also cause them to collapse. For most of human history, information was solely or primarily the possession of those in power, but technology is changing that. As information becomes democratized, those in power can no longer assume they can act without subsequent public scrutiny and without consequences. WikiLeaks was at the forefront of this paradigm shift.
At worst, The Fifth Estate portrays Assange himself as a somewhat crazed and flawed revolutionary. But the movie pursues this personal aspect as a subplot, putting most of its energy into depicting WikiLeaks’ powerful role in democratizing information.