Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Fifth Estate: No One Is Going to Tell You the Truth

“That's where real power lies. Your willingness to look past this story, any story. As long as you keep searching you are dangerous to them. That's what they are afraid of. You. It is all about you.

I finally saw The Fifth Estate. They weren’t kidding about the abysmal attendance rate - I was in a completely empty theater. I found that a little odd, considering how timely the film is - the media spent all summer covering the Manning trial. Oh well. I don’t know if I would have gone if Benedict Cumberbatch had not played the lead. It was his performance I went to see, and he did an excellent job. Still, I was rather hoping the film would dig deeper than it did.

Julian Assange did not want this film made, thinking that it was prejudiced against him and WikiLeaks. Given the lackluster response, he needn’t have worried. I found the film to be fairly superficial in its examination of both Julian and WikiLeaks. It seemed to lose track of what it was doing. Is it a biopic? No, there's not enough background information on the characters. Is it a critique of WikiLeaks? Well, it criticizes one aspect of WikiLeaks, and it doesn't present a compelling case there.

Which brings me to the personalities involved, because the center of the film is not WikiLeaks so much as the friendship, if you can call it that, between Daniel Domscheit-Berg and Julian. This was a relationship with a messy breakup. But it's difficult to feel much affection for the friendship and hence to feel any sadness at its loss. We aren't talking about Thomas Becket and Henry II  or Julius Caesar and Marcus Aurelius, although we are meant to think of Daniel as the noble man of conscience taking a stand against power gone mad.

Julian is compelling because of his passion, but he's also kind of a jerk. You can tell that there is so much more to his story than the film reveals, much of it intensely sad. Part of his childhood was spent  in a cult, one that abused the children and gave them doses of hallucinogenic drugs, and, oddly, required them to dye their hair white. I don’t recall exactly how he became involved in hacking, but he was very good at it, and eventually he and some friends were arrested. One of them betrayed Julian by turning state’s evidence. Betrayal is a theme in the movie, although not one that is explored very deeply. I’ve since looked around a bit on the Internet, and I suspect Julian’s childhood was rather worse than even what we learn in the film. Definitely one of the more fucked up childhoods I’ve ever heard of.

Daniel falls in Julian’s path first as an admirer during the early days (Julian speaking in front of maybe a dozen people) and then becomes engrossed in the mission to the point that it takes over his life. It’s intoxicating to be part of a group that brings down corruption, to feel like you can really make a difference. People can argue that Julian is dangerous, but he has a very clear ethical code of holding the corrupt accountable, and he is persistent in pursuing this cause. I find it difficult not to admire him. He’s also single-minded, charismatic, seductive and manipulative. At one point Julian shows up during a passionate interlude between Daniel and his girlfriend and simply sets up shop, either unaware or unconcerned about the tension he’s created. Or perhaps well aware and pleased to find that he has the power to take over someone’s life so completely.

At no time does Julian act much like an actual friend. He’s all mission. At one point, in a half-assed apology, Julian alludes to being autistic, which is either true or a way of gaining sympathy, I’m not sure. In any case, Daniel becomes someone Julian trusts as a spokesperson for WikiLeaks - and we are shown how wary he is about accepting others into the fold. He also expects complete loyalty in return, so you can see how this is eventually going to crash and burn. When Daniel objects to publishing war logs without redacting names, Julian goes apeshit crazy, accusing Daniel and his girlfriend of being part of the CIA and basically throwing an enormous online temper tantrum.

Haven’t we all had friends like that? They love us as long as we don’t criticize, as long as we are always accessible, and they’re charming enough that at first you don’t notice the dangerous edge to their personality, always one step away from a meltdown, until one day you say the wrong thing and BAM, you are on the receiving end of a shitstorm the likes of which you never expected. It’s obvious that Julian has some serious emotional baggage. Daniel, on the other hand, comes from a stable, middle-class background and is ill-prepared to deal with someone who seems to look at "friends" as tools to further a cause.

(I’m going to take a moment to mention the implication that the mental instability of the principle players taints WikiLeaks. Julian is portrayed as someone damaged by his past, and they just had to mention Manning’s history of mental illness, oh, and say something about how you can’t protect people from themselves. That was referring to Manning but it was aimed at Julian as well. This is a subtle way of undermining any enterprise, because the stigma of mental illness is so persistent. Of course WikiLeaks is dangerous - the man who created it is mentally unstable! It wasn’t conscience that motivated Manning - she was clearly nuts! Why, no one in their right mind would have anything to do with this! This doesn’t even have to be a deliberate, thought-out choice on the part of the writers, because we are so used to accusations of mental illness being used to undermine dissent.)

Faced with the question of the morality of not redacting names, Julian simply replies that WikiLeaks doesn’t edit. And then he pretends to go along with redacting, until Daniel finds out that there is, in fact, no way to wipe out all the names on this enormous datapile. Redacting names seems perfectly reasonable, a way to protect innocent people. So why won’t he? Because it was too difficult? That seems to be the answer, and yeah, that seems like a pretty shit thing to do, and it’s the final straw for Daniel.

But what is the fallout from not redacting? Given the news reporter voice overs about Julian having “blood on his hands,” I expected some stories about the ugly consequences of his refusal. I was unable to dredge up any sympathy for the US government official we follow who’s worried about her favorite operative. If she represents the government’s perspective, it’s pretty wishy-washy. If you are going to argue that someone’s anarchist vision makes him a danger to others, you need to back it up with something besides an onscreen story of an informant SAFELY LEAVING THE COUNTRY. Is there seriously no legitimate evidence that people were targeted as a result? That’s something I would expect Amnesty International to be tabulating if it were so.

Reviewers mentioned the difficulties of creating a film in which the primary action is people tapping keyboards. I didn’t find that particularly problematic while I was watching the film, but then I was interested in the subject. To the average viewer people dramatically whipping out their laptops for some serious anarchist coding probably looks a bit ridiculous. The decision to create an imaginary office space to represent WikiLeaks, which is really just a few people on laptops,  struck me as odd until the end of the movie, when it became clear that the artificial office was set up  as a way to illustrate Daniel’s final betrayal, when he takes down WikiLeaks. Bringing down a virtual office is visually uninspiring. Tipping over desks and setting fire to it all - well I see what they were going for but it looks a bit silly. In any case, that destruction was hardly final, so what the hell? From what I understand, The Guardian had all the logs anyway, so bringing down the site did nothing. Eventually they were all published exactly the way Julian wanted. And last time I checked, WikiLeaks is still in business.

I liked the final scenes, which were filmed as if they were an interview with Julian. He mentions that not a single shred of evidence ever surfaced that publishing the complete logs resulted in anyone’s death. I don’t know if that’s true. I’m not sure I would trust the government if they told me they had evidence. In a bit of meta fun, he talks about the “WikiLeaks movie,” saying that if you really want to know the truth, you’re going to have to find it out yourself. Good luck with that.

The movie didn't change my opinion of WikiLeaks. I admire its mission of transparency and protection for whistleblowers. That governments, which happily send soldiers into useless wars, wars where civilian casualties are massive, should accuse WikiLeaks of making the world less safe, just leaves me flabbergasted at the hypocrisy of that claim. Snowden and Manning had the guts to show us what we truly are as a country, our willingness to murder and torture while trying to cover our tracks, the systematic stripping away of privacy so that we the citizens can have our every move traced while the government hides behind the curtain of national security.

Julian Assange, whatever his personal failings. has one hell of a vision, and he (and Manning and Snowden) is certainly paying the price for it. I really hope it’s worth it.

“You want to know the truth? No one is going to tell you the whole truth. They’ll only tell you their version. You want the truth, you have to seek it out for yourself.”

B for effort, C for execution and A’s for the cast. Oddly enough, I would watch it again.

Oh, and Dan Stevens with dark hair? Yes, please.

UPDATE: Here's what I should have included in the first place, a link to WikiLeak's response to the movie: http://wikileaks.org/IMG/html/wikileaks-dreamworks-memo.html#about.

 According to this, the stuff about Julian being in a cult or dying is hair is fabrication. But you can read for yourself.