It is sad that this movie has been a relative flop at the box office. Based on the screenplay by Josh Singer, documentarian Alex Gibney’s, “The Fifth Estate”, directed by Bill Condon, is a powerful movie. It is highly informative about the unfolding of this century’s one of the most significant media phenomena and is very insightful about the people involved. Benedict Cumberbatch, a British actor has done an outstanding job in playing Assange, brilliantly capturing his speech and mannerisms, his ego-leaching confidence and his vulnerabilities. While the story is about Assange and WikiLeaks, most of it is told through Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s eyes. Daniel Bruhl’s portrayal of Berg is excellent. Berg, a computer wizard, worked with Assange during early stages, to bring Assange’s idea to fruition. Berg’s book “Inside WikiLeaks: My Time With Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website” is one of the sources on which the film is based.
Based on a series of true events surrounding the rise of website WikiLeaks.org, some might interpret the film as portraying somewhat unflattering picture of the founder of WikiLeaks, Australian activist, Julian Assange, who has strongly objected to his portrayal in the film. However, in my opinion, Assange emerges as a real person, with amazingly brilliant mind, big ego, and misdirected but good intentions. He does not come out as a hero but neither does he come out as a villain.
As he explains his beautifully simple plan to render shady organizations more transparent, Assage quotes Oscar Wilde, “Man is least himself when he talks with his own person. But if you give him a mask, he will tell you the truth.” His plan is based on the simple premise that if there are any moral people unhappy about conspiratorial workings in organizations, and if they are accorded some measure of privacy, then they are will be likely to come forward and tell the truth. Further, he believes that truth is a powerful thing that can “topple the most powerful and most repressive of regimes”. As the movie unfolds it becomes clear how this simple premise is both brilliant in its simplicity and powerful in execution. It is based on how information flows in society and using technology to make it more accessible. Armed with a secure database where whistleblowers can privately upload information, in an era where technology enables leads to be encrypted and untraceable, programmer Assange embarks on a journey that ultimately leads to a tool so powerful that it makes the world’s powerful people and institutions shiver and he does not see any irony in that.
It starts with the leak of the anonymous records of the bank Julius Baer’s wealthy clients holding money in trusts in the Cayman Islands. It progresses to show the leak in Kenya that exposed extensive corruption and theft of millions from the state and rigging of the elections by former President Moi. The film gets exciting as Assange clarifies his objective “transparency in institutions and privacy for individuals”. Assange counters Berg’s words of caution saying, “it does not matter how small you are, as long as you have faith and a plan of action.” He is looking for scale, looking to add more servers and get more leaks.
And there are more leaks. Leaks from Lhasa, Tibet showed the Chinese government’s atrocities there. Peruvian leaks revealed confidential information including leak of a global intelligence consultancy heavily critiquing the Peruvian President Humala and Peruvian politicians taking bribes. Information about scientology founder was leaked. Former Presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s email was hacked and her personal information was revealed and it led to Palin’s call for Assange to be hunted down like Osama Bin Laden. Palin was not the only one enraged. Many unintended consequences begin to follow the leaks. After the Kenyan leak, Kenya erupted in violence that flipped the election but also likely led to death of over a thousand people and over 350,000 were displaced. And CIA was getting concerned. Leak of a set of US documents revealed US government’s concern about the kind of government that would follow the end of President Hosni Mubarak’s tenure. Berg was pressuring Assange to spare the time to redact the cables and remove the names of those who provided information to the US officials, before posting on WiKiLeaks, but Assange wanted the truth out immediately. Apparently, some of the identities were compromised.
Moreover, U.S. soldier Bradley Manning shared in the chat room that he was the source of leaks on WiKiLeaks site of more than 700,000 classified files. Manning was working as intelligence analyst in Baghdad and the documents leaked by him included incident reports from Afghanistan and Iraq wars, information on detainees at Guantanamo and thousands of state department cables. This was the biggest breach of secret data in the nation’s history. Leaked documents also contained battlefield accounts that included a 2007 gunsight video of a U.S. Apache helicopter firing at suspected insurgents in Iraq, killing a dozen people including two Reuters news staff. Documents included the number of people internally stated to be killed, along with geographical location of each event. Entries were written by soldiers, intelligence officers, embassy officials and so on.
As Berg’s girl friend pointed out to Berg, Assange was neither cautious about his own safety nor concerned about safety of the people whose identities were compromised. “He is a manipulative ass#$%^”, she says. She assures Berg that the success was a result of both of their efforts and that Assange needed be kept in line and Berg was the line; Berg was the grounded one. However, it soon becomes apparent that Assange cannot be kept in line. Assange is driven by revealing secrets, “getting to the truth” but unconcerned with consequences. He wants the truth revealed and revealed now. “You have to start with the truth. The truth is the only way that we can get anywhere. Because any decision-making that is based upon lies or ignorance can’t lead to a good conclusion.”
Assange is a complicated man. He has currently mounted a crusade against the movie. The transparency zealot who insisted “people have a right to know”, does not want people to know this story of events surrounding inception of WiKiLeaks and fallout from the truths being revealed, because it is told from a different perspective. And yet Assange’s ego is perhaps somewhat proportional to his smartness and his ability to turn a simple idea of offering anonymity, fueled by supreme ethical value “truth” and marrying that with technology to create conditions so powerful so as to reveal bribery, corruption, and money scandals of powerful people and institutions. That was brilliant. Without such transparency, a society shrouded in secrecy, can hardly strive to be fair and egalitarian. After all, hasn’t every breakthrough for the disadvantaged in a society, historically come from unveiling some truth, demasking the privileged hiding behind anonymity and revealing their excesses?
On the other hand, WiKiLeaks came to be one of the most complex media phenomena with gigantic consequences, outside of anyone’s control or anyone’s plan. In the end, does anyone own the truth or does it stand alone? Is it true that truth when revealed will always lead to a good conclusion? To what extent a good conclusion depends upon how truth will be handled by those who come upon it? The issues about truth and consequences are far more complex, with many shades of gray. As a dedicated non violent, vegetarian, gun control enthusiast, and a die hard pacifist, I would even tell Assange, “life trumps truth” on the ethical scale (but I am much less bright compared to him and therefore more willing to acknowledge that it is only my viewpoint and there are other points of view different from mine and just as valid or sometimes more valid).
The film does an outstanding job of telling the facts surrounding this complex series of events. Facts however, never stand alone. They are always embedded into the context of people telling, people receiving, people interpreting, and people executing upon them. I loved this movie and will definitely see it again. This is a box office flop – but I give it a 5 on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being excellent. This story must be told for current and future generations and in this movie, it is masterfully told.