The Fifth Estate

The Fifth Estate, directed by Bill Condon and starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange, editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, and Daniel Bruhl as Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a former WikiLeaks associate, had its premiere at TIFF. It opened the festival to great media coverage. Understandably so, since the film deals with big issues: whistle-blowers, transparency, the public’s right to know, the relationship of the media to government and that of the mainstream media to upstart WikiLeaks-type rivals, all reflecting the impact of new technology. The movie opened for general distribution a couple of weeks ago but, apparently, has not attracted the same public attention as other recent releases. That is too bad. I found the movie fascinating. It is a fast-paced, high-tech depiction of the rise of WikiLeaks, and its quixotic leader, and it raises more questions than it answers.

The release of the film followed in the wake of the sentencing, on August 21st, of Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning to 32 years in custody for violations of the U.S. Espionage Act. Her crime? She leaked hundreds of thousands of American military logs and diplomatic dispatches to WikiLeaks in 2010. Check out wikileaks.org for the current webpage of the organization, and also Chelsea Manning on Wikipedia for further background details.

The movie moves from one international capital to another. The juxtaposition of grandiose aspirations and a small “organization” operating on a shoestring is striking. After several more minor victories for WikiLeaks, the movie focuses on the release of the American documents, the biggest news scoop in decades, and its effect on the organization, the United States government, and the world. The relationship between Assange and his associates becomes progressively more difficult as they struggle with conflicting goals of “winning the information war” and the possibility of real harm to individuals identified by the leaks.

The movie is based on two books: Inside WikiLeaks by Domscheit-Berg, and WikiLeaks by British journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding for the Guardian newspaper. Holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London to avoid extradition to face criminal charges in Sweden, Assange says the movie is based on lies. Is Assange a folk hero? An icon of the information age? Or a terrorist, a traitor, engaged in political warfare? Is his current situation a Pentagon plot to capture him? Are all government documents fair fodder for the media? If not, what are the appropriate limits of privilege? Big questions, big issues, we each need to decide for ourselves.

To help in that enterprise, I recommend you watch the “real” Fifth Estate on CBC-TV which, on November 1st, featured Linden MacIntyre exploring “The Strange World of Julian Assange.” The show is a superb rendition of the history of WikiLeaks, and the nature of the controversy. With that as a background, you will more readily appreciate the movie. If you missed the initial broadcast, you can watch it anytime on CBC-TV‘s the fifth estate webpage.

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