Probably there are few in the world who have not heard about Wiki-Leaks and its steady stream of information supplied directly to the public about all kinds of legerdemain, lies, plots, ploys, violence, violations and you name it by nations great and small, rulers legitimate and illegitimate, bankers honest and corrupt. There is an irony of course to calling one’s organization wiki-leaks, when one is leaking enormous state and trade and business secrets. More like wiki-tidal waves.
The new movie ‘The Fifth Estate’ explores the rise and indeed the retirement (to the Ecuadorian embassy in London) of one Julian Assange. The title of the movie refers back to the Fourth Estate, namely the news media, only the Fifth Estate refers to online hackers and their backers, geeks and their leaks, bloggers and morality floggers, like Julian Assange.
The platform on which Assange stands is “transparency for public institutions, privacy for individuals”. It of course plays into the deep suspicion and cynicism about public institutions that is so clearly manifest around the world, and perhaps particularly in places like America. ‘Big Brother’ is not merely watching, he’s probing, intruding, stealing, hiding etc. This of course is different from Big Business, otherwise known as Google and Amazon who track your every purchase and wish for material things.
This movie is profoundly disturbing, pulling up the rug of society under which hide all sorts of cockroaches. It reveals the profound dishonesty and raw power moves of political leaders and rulers. And it shows what happens when the Emperor is shown to have either no clothes or dirty ones at best. The information age has turned into the exposure of all things dark and dangerous age.
But Mr. Assange acts on the premise that more good than harm is done by blowing the whistle, exposing the worst of humankind’s grabs for power and position and resources, and influence. What he seems to assume is that transparency, the unveiling of all the secrets will make the world a better place. Alas for this, it just makes it clear how bad a place it is, and how indeed its going to Hell in the fast lane.
Some will naively use Assange to assuage their disturbed conscience, or ramp up their moral outrage, and consciousness raising is a good thing, in some ways. But faith without works is dead. And information without action doesn’t change the world.
So how has Bill Condon played this story about freedom of information? Well, he has played it as a thriller, and it is, for the most part a good one. It has an absolute star turn in Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the Aussie Assange. This is Oscar worthy, and riveting to watch. The supporting cast (Linney, Tucci, and lots of other good actors) is good as well.
Does the movie get bogged down in too much techno-speak? Not really. In some ways it is like the movie Social Network, and about as good. Does it really help us understand Assange and his motives? What for example does his being raised in a cult called the Family with an abusive father have to do with the mission Assange sets for himself? This is never made entirely clear.
What is clear is that Assange is a Lone Ranger, and he keeps firing the only decent Tonto he has. But this is a prophet crying in the wilderness that is the internet, and himself apparently enjoying his two minutes of fame. The Devil’s bargain with the Guardian to publish things is also not spelled out sufficiently well. Instead we go for camera angle drama, and scenes from inside Assange’s fertile imagination.
In the end, this is only a pretty good movie. It has its virtues…. but it could have used a theme song…. for what it’s worth, how about ‘For What It’s Worth’ which says: “There’s a man with a gun over there/ tellin’ you, you got to beware/… paranoia runs deep/ into your life it will creep/ it’s starts when you’re always afraid/ step out of line, the man comes and takes you away.. you better stop, hey what’s that sound, everybody look what’s goin’ down……