The much-anticipated film The Fifth Estate, which chronicles the rise of quicksilver truth-seeker Julian Assange and the website WikiLeaks, has finally hit theaters. Directed by Bill Condon, who rose to prominence after directing Twilight, the movie has occupied the media spotlight ever since WikiLeaks leaked the script months ago in protest. Unfortunately, the film itself is far less intriguing than the hype surrounding it.
The film opens in the panicked newsrooms of the Guardian, Der Spiegel and the New York Times on the eve of the release of the War Logs on July 25, 2010, replete with schizophrenic cuts, screaming editors and blaring techno music. This might be the most exciting part for the audience, who may still be buoyed by their expectations. From there, the film screeches to a halt, settling into a flashback that ambles slowly back to the present over the course of the next 90 minutes. We slog through history that establishes Assange as an insular genius, a socially inept hacker who doesn’t even make it on the bill to speak at a hacker conference in 2007. At the event, Assange meets Daniel Berg, an admirer who pulls some strings and secures Assange a slot in the program to describe the early humanitarian incarnation of WikiLeaks to a mostly empty auditorium. Thus, a star is unglamorously born.
Before viewers can fully understand Assange and WikiLeaks’ rise, it helps to unpack the film’s title. Historically, European society has been divided into a rigid social hierarchy known as the “estates of the realm.” First there were three social classes: the clergy, the nobility and the commoners. In the late 18th century, political theorist Edmund Burke argued for the addition of a fourth class: journalists with access to the House of Commons. Two hundred years later, a fifth category began to emerge. Not quite traditional reporters, the fifth estate referred first to political pundits, then citizen journalists and, most recently, a collection of networked individuals whose purpose is to hold the other estates, including traditional journalists, accountable. Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, who appears in the film, describes the phenomenon of the fifth estate as “the rather more amorphous form of media that has not replaced newspapers (and I think won’t), but is nonetheless revolutionary, disruptive and disturbing. In good and bad ways.”
In the case of WikiLeaks, the fifth estate has indeed proved revolutionary, disruptive and — at least to the status quo — more than a little disturbing. It has also provoked unprecedented repression. In August, Chelsea Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking upwards of 250,000 diplomatic cables and 500,000 reports from the military, known as the Iraq War Logs and the Afghan War Logs. Edward Snowden is currently in exile in Russia after exposing the National Security Administration’s top-secret surveillance and data-collection programs. As for the film’s subject itself, Julian Assange remains cloistered in the Ecuadorian embassy in London to escape extradition to Sweden, where he is accused of sexual misconduct.
The Fifth Estate, however, ignores much of this international drama and instead focuses on the characters’ personalities and the problematic relationship between Assange and Daniel Berg. Benedict Cumberbatch, the actor who plays Assange, told Vogue: “On a lot of the stage direction, we collided paths because Bill [Condon] did seem to be setting him [Assange] up as this antisocial megalomaniac.” As for the relationship between Assange and Berg, Cumberbatch explained, “There’s an element of seduction, intimacy, and then rejection. They are almost like lovers.”
For viewers actually interested in the history and politics of WikiLeaks, it’s impossible to see these characters and their interpersonal dramas as anything but a distraction from the real events. Part of the film’s obsession with these one-note character tropes may stem from its questionable source material. The script was adapted from two books — one by the real Daniel Domscheit-Berg entitled Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website, and another by two Guardian journalists entitled Wikileaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy. In an interview with The New Republic, Birgitta Jónsdóttir, a former WikiLeaks volunteer who appears as a character in the film, described both as “divorce books.” She elaborated: “When you write about recent history, and you’re upset, you’re always really biased, even if there are lots of facts that are accurate.”
In its obsession with the character drama, the film minimizes the actual effect of WikiLeaks and downplays the climactic War Logs disclosure. It even manages to ruin scenes that explore ethical dilemmas society is still grappling with. For example, the scene in which Berg decides to take down the submission platform for WikiLeaks to stop Assange from releasing un-redacted documents that could endanger U.S. diplomats might have provoked a conversation about the balance between transparency and national security. But in the logic of the film, Berg’s actions appear to overwhelm these legitimate questions, distilling obvious complexity to a single word: revenge.
The real-life WikiLeaks team has also taken issue with the number of factual inaccuracies. For example, the film implies that thousands of U.S. informants were harmed by the release of diplomatic cables, even though the government has demonstrated no evidence that such injuries occurred. The film also fictionalizes the relationship between Assange and Berg to heighten the personal conflict. One scene, for example, depicts Berg in Iceland helping with the production of Manning’s collateral murder video. WikiLeaks and Assange, however, argue that Berg was never in Iceland and never assisted on the video’s production. “The character of ‘Daniel’ in the film is almost entirely fictitious,” WikiLeaks contended in a press release.
In a year filled with thought-provoking political thrillers such as Fruitvale Station and The Art of Killing, The Fifth Estate fails to engage seriously with the politics and instead creates a superficial cult of personality around its subjects. Yet, off screen, the potential for a powerful film about the fifth estate to come only increases. In October, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar announced that he and Glenn Greenwald plan to launch a new media outlet for investigative journalism and the emerging field of journalism WikiLeaks that represents.
It’s an interesting premise for a movie, and I hope someone makes a worthwhile film exploring this topic some day soon.
If soldiers train for armed combat, why wouldn’t activists train for toppling the political-economic structure that’s killing our chance for a just future? The stakes are just as high.
Uganda’s COVID-19 experience underscores the seemingly universal opportunism of authoritarians amidst crisis, as well as opportunities for resistance.
A nationwide grassroots movement led by the Gwich’in people may soon reach its long-sought goal: permanent protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.