In the final scene of The Fifth Estate (2013), Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is being interviewed about his life after the massive Wikileaks publication of sensitive US government cables. When asked about the upcoming Wikileaks movie, he calls it “the anti-Wikileaks movie.” It is a fantastic moment of self-reference for the film, but the comment also illuminates the central difficulty in telling this story: Is it possible to make an unbiased movie about a topic as divisive as Wikileaks?
The Fifth Estate is based upon the book Inside Wikileaks: My Time with Julian Assange and the World’s Most Dangerous Website by Daniel Domscheit-Berg, which chronicles his time as Assange’s right-hand man. Assange sees his mission as that of a crusading journalist who is able to publish things in cyberspace that traditional media outlets can or will not. The model of newspapers and broadcast news are called the “Fourth Estate,” and Assange’s goal was to establish cyberspace as the “Fifth Estate.”
The hacker underground communicates on the obscure IRC area of the Internet, and this is where Domscheit-Berg first came in contact with Assange. They met in person a few months later, and Assange realized that Domscheit-Berg could be a significant help to his nascent site. In recruiting Domscheit-Berg, Assange said that Wikileaks had hundreds of volunteers. The “hundreds of volunteers” line would become one of Assange’s mantras, and it served to make Wikileaks sound much bigger than it actually was. As Domscheit-Berg later discovered, his addition to the team doubled its true membership. The hundreds of volunteers were a product of Assange’s imagination. He opened dozens of fake e-mail addresses, and in the IRC chats he created heated “discussions” between these invented associates.
The scene in which Assange reveals the truth to Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl) is one of the high points of the film, and it comes at the perfect moment. By publishing internal documents revealing massive fraud, Wikileaks took down the Swiss bank Julius Baer. The site became famous overnight, and in the afterglow, Domscheit-Berg wanted to celebrate with the entire Wikilieaks team, if only through their computer terminals. Assange agrees, and as he calls up each member, the face that appears is that of Assange. This profound betrayal will only be the beginning for Domscheit-Berg.
The visual representation of this emotional scene is impressive. While these events occurred a few years back, the high-tech look feels as if we are seeing the future. For this scene, production designer Mark Tildesley created what looks like a pressroom, filled with hundreds of desks, all with Assange sitting at them. This room is used as a visual metaphor throughout the film, but the way it is used here is particularly notable.
Following the Julius Baer expose, whistleblowers around the world turned to Wikileaks. The site leaked documents regarding Guantanamo Bay, Scientology, and even Sarah Palin’s private e-mails. Of particular interest to Assange is the situation in Kenya, with the death squads. And this is where his decision to publish the documents without redaction first rears its awful head. The term “redaction” is news-speak for editing out the names of the people who these documents could put in danger, such as undercover agents. Assange’s position is that “editing reflects bias.” In a shocking scene, we see the Wikileaks gang (which actually has grown by this time) being praised for the Kenya story, then we cut to two men in Kenya who are excitedly talking about the story while driving. When their car stops at a traffic light, they are shot mid-sentence. The better life they had hoped for as Wikilieaks whistleblowers was over, thanks to Assange‘s policy.
In 2010 Bradley Manning came to Wikileaks with a cache of over 250,000 secret US documents. It would be the site’s defining moment, and true to form, Assange’s ego was front and center. He partnered with newspapers around the world, which helped to spread the story out, and insured that the files were in multiple hands. But when the members of the Fourth Estate explained to him the importance of redacting the documents, he would not listen. He finally paid them lip-service by saying he would do it, but when Wikileaks published the cables, they were unedited.
The animosity between Assange and Domscheit-Berg had been growing, and when Wired magazine called Domscheit-Berg “the co-founder of Wikileaks,” Assange lost it. He began telling people that Domscheit-Berg worked for the FBI, and that his girlfriend was CIA. At this point in the film, Domscheit-Berg metaphorically destroys Wikileaks. The climactic scene in which he trashes the previously mentioned “newsroom” is another amazing visual moment.
In the interview that closes The Fifth Estate, Assange states that there is no evidence that anyone was harmed by his decision not to redact the documents. It is a claim that I find hard to believe, but it goes unchallenged. With the instant retaliation in Kenya as an example of what can happen, and with over a quarter-million files released, the odds are pretty strong against his assertion.
The Wikileaks publication of the cables has been compared to Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers leak in 1971. There are certainly some similarities. Ellsberg was a government worker who had gotten fed up with the lies about Vietnam, and to prove that the public was being misled, he stole and released the papers. It has been said that Manning’s motivation stemmed from a similar feeling about the war in Afghanistan.
As a film, The Fifth Estate’s nearest ancestor is All the President’s Men (1976). In both films we are watching the story behind the story, and the challenge is how to make it interesting. Watching Assange and Domscheit-Berg working on their computers is not inherently exciting, but the way director Bill Comdom has shot the movie is highly compelling.
One of the key challenges was how to avoid a documentary feel. In the bonus feature “Submission Platform” (10:25) Comdom and production designer Mark Tildesley discuss how they avoided this trap. One of the keys was the pressroom I mentioned earlier, and they admit that it actually was inspired by All the President’s Men. During the second bonus piece “In Camera: Graphics,” (6:25) we see how the team made the task of typing a computer keyboard into something interesting. Most of this was done by putting the camera in unusual positions, rather than a standard “over the shoulder” approach.
The third and final extra is “Scoring Secrets” (9:11) in which the music of The Fifth Estate is discussed. Composer Carter Burwell says that his biggest challenge was how to use music to make Assange an approachable character. He read up on the man, then used electronic music and low-BPM techno sounds to achieve this. It works very well, and although it is never mentioned, I was sometimes reminded me of Vangelis’ excellent work on Blade Runner (1982).
The high-tech world of The Fifth Estate looks sublime with the 1080p High Definition Widescreen (2.40:1) transfer to Blu-ray. It also sounds fantastic, whether your system is set up for 5.1 DTS-HDMA or DVS 2.0 Dolby Digital.
The biggest compliment I can offer to this film is that even though we all know exactly what happened, the film still feels like a thriller. It is a treat for the eyes, the music enhances the mood, and the pace is quick. It also reinforces our national unease in regards to the technological world we live in. Which is worse, the government secrets that are exposed, or the “traitors” who expose them? The Fifth Estate is devoted to Wikileaks and Julian Assange, but we are in the midst of a whole new leak with the NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden. Obviously this is not something that is going away.
The Fifth Estate provides a tremendous insight into a world most of us know very little about beyond the headlines, and its founder Julian Assange. He is a fascinating character, and despite his protestations, the film does not feel biased. Playing fast and loose with secret documents is not exactly something that is going to generate a lot of sympathy in the world, no matter how you justify it. One thing is certain, this type of debate is just getting started, and The Fifth Estate provides an excellent example of just how high the stakes are.