The first trailer for the much-anticipated Hollywood movie on WikiLeaks, The Fifth Estate, has been unveiled. It shows the WikiLeaks organization going from releasing the “Collateral Murder” video of an Apache helicopter attack that killed two Reuters journalists in Baghdad to releasing military documents on the Afghanistan war to publishing cables that helped fuel uprisings in the Middle East to then-lead member of the organization, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, ultimately growing frustrated with WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange and being forced to part ways.
The preview shows Assange giving speech at a conference in Reykjavik, Iceland. Accompanied by Domscheit-Berg, he tells the audience, “If we could find one moral man, one whistleblower, someone willing to expose those secrets, that man could topple the most powerful and most repressive of regimes.”
Just before this, a glimpse inside the government’s response to WikiLeaks is shown. Tension is brewing over the fact that 12 million people have seen “Collateral Murder.” Anthony Mackie, who plays some government official, asks another official played by Laura Linney if the organization has an agenda. Linney replies, “Truth, justice, the American way.”
From the preview, it indicates there are scenes featuring the organization’s leaks on a billion dollar bank in Iceland. There also are scenes with characters repeating government talking points. A general warns that the military reports from Afghanistan have the names of hundreds of informants and “there are lives at risk.”
Another government official in the movie, who at first glance seems like a character inspired by former State Department spokesperson PJ Crowley demandingly states, “I need names of sources who could be harmed if these cables are put out.” He also later can be heard in the trailer saying Assange is “not a journalist. He’s a threat to national security.”
But the preview concludes with statements that appear to capture the essence of what makes an organization like WikiLeaks valuable to society. An elderly woman says, “If we had someone like you, the Berlin Wall would have come down years before.” And the clip ends with Assange speaking to the camera saying, “If you want the truth, you should seek it out for yourself. That’s what they’re afraid of: you.”
Some first thoughts are this movie is already something Assange is leery of seeing open in the United States. The source material for the film is Domscheit-Berg’s book, “Inside WikiLeaks,” which helped some staff writers at newspapers write gossip columns about the personality issues he had with Assange and the battle that created tension in the organization. It unfortunately was not well-received.
A glance at Amazon leads one to find the following reviews: “Some insight into WikiLeaks, but unfortunately sappy, trite and then vindictive,” “raising the bar for banal opportunism,” “A book on Assange’s quirks, not WikiLeaks.”
The filmmakers behind this movie also referenced David Leigh and Luke Harding of The Guardian‘s book, “WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy.”
One of the more “helpful reviews” on Amazon by a reader who admits to being “disinterested but not dispassionate” about the WikiLeaks drama, suggests, “What one notices immediately is the general tone of these writings, not only devoid of any sympathy for the subject but frankly billious. Leaving you with an unpleasant taste in your mouth, this tone makes you slightly suspicious as for the authors’ motivations and impartiality.” And another review reads, “I was greatly disappointed with this book. I was hoping to learn more about Assange rather than patently-slanted gossip.”
Icelandic parliamentarian Birgitta Jonsdottir, who helped with the release of the “Collateral Murder” video and is portrayed in the film, offered constructive criticism of the movie. That possibly had an impact. Assange, on the other hand, chose not to sit down and personally meet the actor playing him, Benedict Cumberbatch, even though Cumberbatch seems to have respect for the role he played in WikiLeaks’ impact on the world.
Obviously, it is perfectly reasonable for Assange to be concerned about a film that has as its source material to books believed by many who have read the book to be personal treatises on the character flaws of the WikiLeaks editor-in-chief himself. That may be the case, but it certainly does not do what the director of The Fifth Estate, Bill Condon, wants to do with this movie.
Condon has said:
It may be decades before we understand the full impact of WikiLeaks and how it’s revolutionized the spread of information. So this film won’t claim any long view authority on its subject, or attempt any final judgment. We want to explore the complexities and challenges of transparency in the information age and, we hope, enliven and enrich the conversations WikiLeaks has already provoked.
That’s honorable. And this seems to suggest Condon understands the importance of WikiLeaks too:
It was so strange, I have to say, when you’re making a movie, and editing it, and you’re seeing the story play out again [with Edward Snowden], with some of the same lines being used by the government…Some of the exact same arguments are being applied to a completely different case. It’s quite eerie, actually.
Yet, it is a big-budget movie from Dreamworks. If it was taking on the climate the administration of President Barack Obama has fostered and truly exploring the “complexities and challenges of transparency in the information age,” would Dreamworks be backing the film?
Condon also told Huffington Post about the movie’s focus on Assange:
What you want to do is try to understand him…You’re trying to burrow deep into who those people are. In the good movies about real events, there’s never a big split between people’s personal life and what they do [as professionals]. It’s who they are that makes them do something extraordinary. So, in this case, exploring who he is really helped inform both the greatness he achieved and the mistakes he made. I think you’ll find it is certainly not — in any case, in any way — a white-wash of history or celebration of him. It’s also not an attack on him.
When one considers the source material film, however, there is reason to doubt that the film will not be “an attack on him” or a fair exploration of the achievements and missteps in the history of the organization.
Condon claims the movie presents “a balanced picture of its subject,” but one should always be skeptical of anyone who tries to be objective like this. If one is telling the actual story based upon real-life players involved, there should be no reason to be concerned about balance. It will be the story it should be.
Will this movie just be a retelling of a story by news headlines to remind audiences of what captured the attention of media or will there be some new dimension added to the public’s understanding of WikiLeaks by this movie?
How will it not be simply a dramatic version of part of Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets documentary, which I found to mostly focus on personalities instead of raising the larger, more significant issues necessary to contextualizing the significance of WikiLeaks?
A good movie on WikiLeaks would capture all the nuances of the characters in the story of WikiLeaks while also attempting to present the extent of the secrecy state in America and the nobility of WikiLeaks’ efforts to confront it. The movie would highlight how the organization continues to remain committed to operating, even though it remains a target of the United States government.
If audiences only walk away with new thoughts on how Assange was not who he initially claimed to be—without an understanding of the pressures by the US government that maybe brought out those imperfections of character, audiences will likely miss any attempts to broach more substantial social or political issues.