Fifth Estate Offers Look Into WikiLeaks
The Fifth Estate is Director Bill Condon’s biopic about Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder. It documents his work in building the site that gives whistleblowers the opportunity to remain anonymous, and the ups and downs of his relationship with a one-time colleague. It reveals the quest to expose the deceptions and corruptions of power that turned an Internet upstart into the 21st Century’s most fiercely debated organization. WikiLeaks, which was launched in 2006, became internationally known in 2010 when it began to publish U.S. military and diplomatic documents with assistance from its partners in the news media. Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning has since pleaded guilty to supplying the cables to WikiLeaks. Manning was convicted in July 2013 during a trial at Fort Meade, Md., and sentenced to 35 years in prison.
The Fifth Estate begins as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his colleague Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl) team up to become underground watchdogs of the privileged and powerful. On a shoestring, they create a platform that allows whistle-blowers to anonymously leak covert data, shining a light on the dark recesses of government secrets and corporate crimes.
Assange bounces from country to country, laptop in backpack, encountering injustices and exposing them on the web. Young hacker Domscheit-Berg helps set up safe ways for whistle-blowers to transfer data to WikiLeaks. At first Domscheit-Berg thinks he’s only one of many helping Assange, but then he realizes Assange is a one-man band. And, it turns out, that’s how Assange likes it.
Together they tantalize newspaper editors (Peter Capaldi, David Thewlis) and torment government leaders (Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci, Anthony Mackie). When Domscheit-Berg starts catching the spotlight, Assange is enraged. And when others start questioning the impact and veracity of information he is posting, Assange charges ahead. But Domscheit-Berg soon starts to worry about Assange’s mental stability, as well as his evident desire for the wrong kind of attention. When the two gain access to the biggest trove of confidential intelligence documents in U.S. history, they battle each other and a defining question of our time: what are the costs of keeping secrets in a free society-and what are the costs of exposing them?
As played by Cumberbatch, Assange is either a visionary to be revered or a narcissist to be reviled. We first meet him in the early days of WikiLeaks, the website he founded to encourage political whistleblowers and expose global corruption. The movie, based on books by Domscheit-Berg and two reporters from the Guardian newspaper in London, never gets to the bottom of this question.
How many heels does it get?
Whether Assange is a “journalist” is debatable. In theory, I think WikiLeaks has done a good thing exposing corporate greed and government corruption around the world, including what U.S. forces have done in Afghanistan. But, doing it without regard to what the information does to innocent people is unconscionable. Should the families of those who commit crimes be harmed or even killed when their addresses or other personal information is released? The Fifth Estate has certainly changed my opinion of WikiLeaks and Assange, who is now living in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London after seeking asylum from Sweden where he is wanted on sexual assault charges. Instead of doing it in the name of transparency, Assange is portrayed as a arrogant, lying egotist doing it all for the fame. Whether that’s true remains to be seen.
The movie is an over simplification of WikiLeaks history and whittles the conflict down to one between a hopeless egoist and a mostly helpless, naive up-and-comer. In the reality, Assange is a divisive figure to those who know of him and his work. He’s either a hero fighting for transparency in a time when the secrets of various institutions seem to be working against the common folk or a villain looking to take down every power establishment with no regard for the harm that might result. Rated R. Opens Oct. 18, 2013.
My rating: 4 out of 5 Heels
Editor-in-Chief Mark Heckathorn is a journalist, movie buff and foodie. He oversees DC on Heels editorial operations as well as strategic planning and staff development. Reach him with story ideas or suggestions at dcoheditor (at) gmail (dot) com.