Monday, November 25, 2013

The Fifth Estate: the World vs Assange

Bram has finally got around to seeing The Fifth Estate. No small attraction of this movie was of course the fabulous Benedict Cumberbatch who plays Julian Assange, but Bram has concluded Benedict is better as Khan (no spoilers for those of you who haven't seen Star Trek Into Darkness, which you should).
Anyway, back to The Fifth Estate: an interesting but ultimately unsatisfying movie. Unfortunately the film suffers from being old media’s take on new media, whilst it manages to highlight the importance of new media ventures such as WikiLeaks, it really suggests that such projects are petulant children and until they grow up and learn some manners, they should be looked after by their older siblings who know the rules of the game. It doesn’t really tackle the real issue of whether existing media is serving its purpose of exposing the truth or whether it is now in the capture of government and big business. It never tackles the question of why whistleblowers turn to organizations such as WikiLeaks rather than established media. Ultimately of course The Fifth Estate descends into a good versus evil battle: is Assange a hero or a villain? Rather than focus on the big questions of surveillance, privacy, big data and what role is the media playing in keeping an eye on the other three estates, we are again preoccupied with the question of personality. Yet again, we get a gratuitous scene of Assange dancing…
The film is told from the perspective of Daniel Domscheit-Berg (played in the movie by Daniel Brühl), one time admirer of, and collaborator with, Assange. The film is based upon Berg’s book Inside WikiLeaks, a book highly critical of Assange (unsurprising since they had a falling out and Assange suspended and then excluded Berg from WikiLeaks) and the WikiLeaks book written by Guardian journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding, who also had a falling out with Assange during the publication of the war logs and US Embassy cables over the questions of redaction and matters of trust. Unsurprisingly therefore it tracks Berg's gradual disillusionment with Assange and his exclusion from WikiLeaks. The film deals only tangentially with Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning and mentions the sexual assault allegations and detention of Assange at the conclusion of the film in text boxes.
The film operates in the style of having various characters act as the mouthpiece for various points of view. Berg’s girlfriend (Anke played by Alicia Vikander) is very much the voice of conscience. We see her reminding Berg that people may be hurt as a result of the leaks, that the people named in the logs have families too. In the movie, she is a catalyst for Berg’s determination to stand up to Assange over the question of redaction, and ultimately bears responsibility for breaking up the band. She plays the role of “moral person”, she respects the value of the work being done by WikiLeaks but believes this does not justify any personal costs to her, Berg or anyone else. She also reminds Berg that Assange is a “manipulative asshole”, implying he has been corrupted by power and has gone bad (or mad or whatever). Daniel is the "everyman" character, motivated by conscience, generous, trusting and ultimately denounced by Assange when he stands up to him about the redactions (though Berg is shown still working “selflessly” behind the scenes to shut down access to the WikiLeaks server while Assange is presenting to the media). Nick Davies (David Thewlis) from the Guardian represents the “good media”. He has several set pieces where he tells us the viewer about the role of the media. At one crucial point he warns Assange: “you need to be careful how the story is published”. He claims that he is working on an angle to paint the leaks as the next Pentagon Papers, and that the future of Assange, WikiLeaks and Manning depends on this. It is at this point of the film that a key question comes into play: what is the role of WikiLeaks as an organization: to publish the truth, to protect whistleblowers, is it a source or a media organization? Different points of view on this are represented by different characters, but Davies is shown as trying to assist WikiLeaks in obtaining “legitimacy”. This is a contentious (and generous) characterization of how the Guardian has actually treated Assange.
Added to the narrative provided by the Berg and Guardian books, the film includes a misleading side story about a US diplomat concerned to protect her source in Libya when the US Embassy cables are published. As Geoffrey Robertson has pointed out, this scene ‘could never have happened as a result of Cablegate’ as Manning did not have access to ‘top’ or ‘ultra’ secret sources (Dreaming Too Loud, "Assange in Ecuador", 2013). Further, any claims that WikiLeaks had blood on it's hands with respect to Cablegate have been refuted, and there is no evidence that there have been any casualties as a result of the Embassy Cable leaks.
The fictional diplomat, (Under Secretary of State Sarah Shaw played by Laura Linney) who is initially impressed by the work of WikiLeaks leaves us with the poignant comment that she is not sure who will be judged more harshly by history: her or Asange.
This is of course a film about truth and lies. Big lies told by governments, banks and corporations and small lies we tell one another. We are ultimately made to feel more concerned about the “lies” that Assange has told Berg, such as the fact that WikiLeaks is run by hundreds of volunteers, than the lies the US Government is telling its own citizens on a daily basis. If Assange is not 100% truthful and personally beyond reproach, then the suggestion seems to be, we cannot respect his work.
It is also about loyalty and trust. Assange explains early on to Berg that he works alone as “you don’t get far relying on others”. A key moment in the film is when Assange learns of the assassination of his Kenyan sources, he feels he has let them down because he did not get their story enough publicity to protect them.
Throughout the film we are drip fed strange elements from Assange’s past in pieces that feel quite staged (teenage hacking, being on the run from his mother’s ex, his University education): in the tone of “you need to know this about Assange because it explains why he is quite mad so try not to hold it against him!”.
There is also a thematic obsession with the colour of his hair, various explanations are given by Assange to different people about traumatic events that turned his hair white. Then at the conclusion of the film we are shown Assange dying his hair (a habit it is implied started with the Family and their practice of forcing all children to dye their hair blonde). But again, this is done in the context of presenting Assange as a liar (references are also made to his hacker tag of Mendax).
Throughout the film Assange is presented as a damaged character, but in the end this does not seem to be enough to redeem him, which is what the film so desperately wants. He has to be after all a hero or a villain, he cannot be neutral, human, conflicted. He is painted as an egomaniac and it is this ego which ultimately undoes him.
The film ends with some straight to camera pieces from Assange, apparently from inside the Ecuadorian Embassy, which again are clumsy attempts to encapsulate key points of view, but they become awkward in their lack of connection to the drama which has preceded this conclusion. They do not vindicate, rather they ostracise the viewer even further from Assange.
It is a shame that the film, which does so well in visualizing the new power of data, did not present a more balanced view of the personalities involved. Assange has denounced the project and it is worth looking at the email exchange between Cumberbatch and Assange regarding characterization of Assange and Cumberbatch’s participation in the film. See also WikiLeaks comments on the script.
It is time we move beyond personality and take up the bigger questions provoked by the leaks: how long are we content to sit by and let the media numb us into accepting massive scale surveillance? 

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