THE FIFTH ESTATE: A FILM DRAMATIZING THE WIKILEAKS SAGA AND JULIAN ASSANGE. A CRITICAL POINT OF VIEW OR A SMEAR? RATED C.

THE FIFTH ESTATE POSTER

This film starring Benedict Cumberbatch and directed by Bill Condon (Gods And Monsters, Kinsey) is a comment on the impact of the internet on traditional means of communication. It also paces itself as if to emulate the speed of communication in the internet age by narrative and jump cutting to reflect the  fast changing set of circumstances and relationships. It is shot in desaturated color giving it a nourish look. The film is based on two books critical of Assange by David Leigh of the Guardian and Daniel Domscheit-Berg,   Assanges one time second in command. The  fast moving film is shot in a semi-docudrama style with excellent performances by Cuberbatch (Assange), Daniel Bruhl (Domscheit-Berg), Stanley Tucci, Laura Linney (U.S. Diplomats), Alexander Siddig (Libyan informant) and others. The main conflict in the film is between Assange and Berg over what is Wikileaks moral responsibility to persons who may be killed or severely damaged as a result of the release of unredacted leaks without an assessment of the truth or falsity of the leak or the leakers motive.

The film labels Assange a megalomaniac who is indifferent to the consequences to innocent parties of the information distributed by his website.   It shows two informants assassinated in Africa over matters they leaked. Then it gets to the main crux of the film: the massive data release by the then Bradley Manning. It is in parts redacted and published in the Guardian, N.Y. Times, Der Spiegel and other newspapers as well as on the Wikileaks website which posts some parts unredacted.  Notably the candid diplomatic cables.

Stanley Tucci and Laura Linney play two American diplomatic officers who expereince the consequences of the cables  to themselves, American diplomacy and its undercover agents around the world whose lives are put in jeopardy. (To date no loss of life has been identified and the two African informants who are assassinated in the film appear to be fictional.)

One of Assange’s alleged core principles is not to edit the anonymous leaks received and to put them out there regardless of the consequences. Another is, truth is more important than the lives of those involved. He believes once you start to edit the leaks you become a censor and then  where will it stop. (Which raises the question is Wikileaks just a facilitator or a journalistic publisher with Constitutional rights. It is never raised properly or answered by the film.)

The narrative of the film loses its way when it says Assange was taken as a child into an Australian cult with severe disciplinary rules for children and the requirement that their hair be dyed white. It alleges he escaped with his mother and spent much of his childhood and youth running from the cult known as the Family. This, it is inferred, is the cause of his allegedly flawed persona.  Anyway whether the allegations are true or not it is a cheap character assasination and detracts from the main thrust of the film; that Assange is an idealistic ego maniac indifferent to the consequences of  Wikileaks posts. The other side of the coin is whether his acts are those of an idealist trying to expose criminal conduct by governments and large business entities. The film fatally dismisses the latter possibility with the personal attack. Apparently Assange believes untrue leaks will fail by themselves  if the film states the first two principles correctly.

Allegedly without the Manning leak, including the infamous Bagdad Apache helicopter attack, and the subsequent, simultaneous publication and validation by the Guardian and other main stream newspapers Wikileaks would be two relatively unknown guys with a server according to the film never rising to a serious problem for the great powers. This is hard to swallow since the helicopter attack was released with out the aid of the Guardian or others and achieved international notoriety very quickly

The Guardian journalists, one of whom is Leigh (who is  publishing a new book simultaneously with the film) tell Assange, after the publication of the Manning data,  intelligence agencies around the world will smear his reputation. The film doesn’t touch on the Swedish problem and ends with  Domscheit-Berg leaving Wiklileaks and disabling the reception platform for the anonymous leaks. All this leaves us with the impression that Assange is a lonely man imprisoned in the London Ecuadorian Embassy.  It is silent on Assange’s role  in the Snowden affair or the fact that apparently his support group was instrumental in securing Snowden’s asylum in Russia. It is also silent on the significance of the fact that Snowden went first to the Guardian for publication of his leak.

The film leaves one wondering if it is another smear against Assange and who benefits by it. It doesn’t appear to be a search for truth.

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