SEATTLE, Washington.- WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is a hero, but I didn’t get that from director Bill Condon’s film, The Fifth Estate. Assange is depicted as a stereotypical radical — bossy, arrogant, paranoid, and (horrors!) nearly devoid of social skills.
Disney and DreamWorks Studios produced The Fifth Estate with a twisted view of whistleblowers, showing them as people that few would choose to emulate. As Assange himself has said, The Fifth Estate “is a work of political opportunism, influence, revenge and, above all, cowardice.”
Assange may or may not be the weird egomaniac the film portrays, but no one can doubt his courage as he almost single-handedly confronts global capital and its complicit governments.
Buddy betrayal. The Fifth Estate is a sort of buddy flick focusing on the relationship between Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl).
The film makes it clear that Assange operates from two fundamental beliefs: privacy for individuals, transparency for corporations and governments. He lived these principles by founding WikiLeaks, a Web site that collects material provided anonymously by whistleblowers, verifies it, and sends it to the world through cyberspace.
Assange recruits Domscheit-Berg, a skilled researcher and hacker fascinated at first by the cyber-activist’s vision and commitment. Assange hopes Domscheit-Berg will be loyal to WikiLeaks and, in a confidential moment, shares the story of his painful betrayal by a childhood friend.
Knowing his project is a life-and-death matter, Assange is haunted by the fear that only he is strong enough to carry on the fight, which foreshadows the eventual conflict between Assange and Domscheit-Berg over whether to publish material without first selectively editing it.
Although not mentioned in the film, in 2010 a U.S. congressman and others openly called for assassinating Assange, and still others demanded his prosecution under the Espionage Act, which carries the death penalty. These events help explain the urgency behind Assange’s constant move from one city to another, never staying anyplace for more than a few days. It’s not paranoia if they’re really after you.
As a materialist, I judge Assange by his accomplishments, not his style. One learns from the film that WikiLeaks exposed millions in tax evasion by clients of a Swiss bank. It leaked the membership list of the fascist British National Party. It posted the now-famous video showing civilians deliberately gunned down by U.S. troops in Afghanistan. And it published the documents leaked by Private Chelsea (then Bradley) Manning. WikiLeaks offers proof of the corruption, lies, and manipulations of the most dominant governments and companies in history.
The DreamWorks script is based primarily on Domscheit-Berg’s book Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website. Hollywood reinforces the author’s position that Assange publishes leaked material without regard to the consequences. Domscheit-Berg plays Liberal’s Advocate, saying that people identified in the leaks might be harmed. Assange counters that it’s not the fault of WikiLeaks, Private Manning, or Edward Snowden that exposing secret documents might jeopardize individuals. Instead, it’s the responsibility of the U.S. government that puts its employees in harm’s way in the first place — while committing horrendous atrocities.
Unable to take the heat, Domscheit-Berg abandons WikiLeaks after destroying over 3,500 unreleased documents. Assange is forced into exile in the Ecuadorian consulate in London. But he and WikiLeaks have survived. On Nov. 13, 2013, WikiLeaks released a key part of the despotic Trans-Pacific Partnership, a new “free trade” assault drafted in secrecy by Obama & Co. over the past four years.
Keystrokes to change the world. The film would have been much more exciting if it had kept its focus on the underdog taking down giants rather than churning out a fake character study of Assange’s supposed peculiarities and difficult past. Who cares?
Contributing another irksome stereotype is Domscheit-Berg’s wife (Alicia Vikander), the film’s only woman. “It’s Assange or me: you choose,” she complains when Domscheit-Berg once again interrupts their lives for a WikiLeaks emergency.
High praise for Cumberbatch’s acting, which is the film’s best aspect. He masterfully conveys tension, constantly looking around, uneasy, on the move, and snapping orders. But take a motion sickness pill before seeing it. The photography is jerky and the editing so jarring that I had to look away at times to re-establish my equilibrium.
Weaknesses aside, The Fifth Estate does drive home the absolutely crucial role played by whistleblowers and those who risk everything to tell the truth while protecting their sources.
The Internet is a tool that Assange uses skillfully in the heightening class conflict between the 1 percent and the 99 percent. His vision provides us another way to fight back, and for that, he’s a flesh and blood superhero better than Spiderman, Wonder Woman, or Thor.
Source: Freedom Socialist Party/EEUU