Thursday, October 17, 2013

Review: "The Fifth Estate"

Sometimes we whisper.

As a journalist, my first instinct is always toward transparency and holding governments and other institutions of power accountable. As a citizen, though, I understand that some things a group of people does must be kept secret in order for their aims to succeed.

The lines can grow fuzzy, but fundamentally most people understand that in communicating with each other, sometimes we have to shout, and sometimes we must whisper.

The problem with Julian Assange and his website WikiLeaks is they do not make this distinction. While claiming transparency for the whistleblower as its ultimate calling, the group is happy to trample on the rights of individuals and nations in pursuit of what it deems the common good. Sometimes what the site publishes is helpful; sometimes it smacks of leaking secret documents as an end unto itself.

The film version of WikiLeaks’ rise and fall, “The Fifth Estate,” portrays the operation as an amalgamation of journalistic enterprise and gleeful computer hacker playground. The central figure, of course, is Julian Assange, the oddly charismatic leader with long white hair played by Benedict Cumberbatch.

In Cumberbatch’s quicksilver portrayal, Assange is part visionary, part con man and all manipulative bully. We start out admiring his brio and style. But over time it becomes clear that Assange is less concerned with disseminating the truth than making himself the oracle of a new technological age where information flows like water wherever it wants – with a little engineering assistance from Assange and his merry band of groupies.

Director Bill Condon and screenwriter Josh Singer based their film on a book by Daniel Berg, Assange’s former right-hand man who split off at the moment of WikiLeaks’ greatest triumph – the mass publication of thousands of American diplomatic cables leaked by Army Pfc. Chelsea (née Bradley) Manning – who was recently in the news being sentenced to prison.

As played by Daniel Brühl, Berg is a fairly apolitical programmer who gives up his cushy job in the corporate world to help Assange take down a major bank. They come up with a method to protect the identity of their whistleblowers so foolproof they themselves don’t know who is giving them information.

At first, Berg sees this as a strength. He’s all-in on Assange’s method of publishing everything their leakers give them, without alteration. “Editing reflects bias,” he insists.

But over time Berg begins to see how Assange has manipulated him, the mainstream media and the rest of the world.

Condon and Singer opt for way, way too many scenes of men (few women in this club) hunched over laptop computers, typing away furiously as bright beams of colorful gibberish splash across the screens. I can’t help but compare this movie to “The Social Network,” which eschewed the guts of geekery in favor of focusing on the personalities behind the code.

Instead, we’re given recognizable actors (Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci) in small roles where they pop up from time to time and spout something apocryphal for the benefit of the audience, like a British newspaper editor (David Thewlis) bellowing: “He’s the head of a huge global media empire who’s accountable to no one. And we put him there!”

The result is a jangled mess of a movie, Deep Throat meets “War Games.”

Today, WikiLeaks and Assange are largely neutralized. He is essentially a captive inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, subject to immediate arrest and extradition should he ever leave. A visit to the WikiLeaks site shows only four new leak articles posted in the last year, and those restricted to rather obscure matters.

The obsession with leaks continues, with Edward Snowden aided and abetted by mainstream media who ought to know better.

We’ve reached an age where we have substituted the principled whistleblower who leaks a piece of information they think the world needs to know in favor of anarchists who believe the very concept of secrets represents tyranny. So they spill everything in hopes of finding a few drops of insight in a vat of brew. They literally know not what they leak.

“The Fifth Estate” is a better idea for a film than the one they made.

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