Film Review: The Fifth Estate

15.10.2013 - Silvia Swinden

Film Review: The Fifth Estate
(Image by Julian Assange (left) with Daniel Domscheit-Berg. Picture by Jacob Appelbaum, Wikimedia Commons)

Probably the sleekest, most entertaining and visually overcomplicated piece of character assassination you’re likely to see in the cinema, made more effective by its subtlety. Benedict Cumberbatch’s depiction of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is no doubt a great feat of acting, but I had problems to identify the damaged and neurotic (occasionally deluded, too) portrayal of the hacker/whistleblower with the original I saw in interviews and presentations. This film is not a historical work but rather a part of the story itself and it will influence public opinion and decisions about Assange’s future, not for the better, I dare say.

Assange’s assertion that nobody was hurt by the release of the massive number of documents is counterbalanced in the film by a subplot about one of the potential targets’ narrow and suspense laden escape from Libya, the emotional connection to Laura Linney’s character pulls a bit at the heartstrings which together with allegories of an exploding massive office attempt to inject the Hollywood blockbuster action spirit in an otherwise arid and rather unexciting field of electronic encryption. The real explosiveness of revealing the world of secrecy is there too, with a touch of ambivalence.

The fact that WikiLeaks uncovered dirt is not denied, the video that shows civilians together with Reuter’s correspondents being killed by American soldiers from an Apache helicopter in Iraq is not only not hidden, in fact it seems to have been used to give credibility to the film, but considering it is a piece of information already in the public domain that perhaps explained the meaning of the word “viral” to so many of us internet illiterates, reduces its claim to being a meaningful exposé.

The film is based on a book by the same person who after being WikiLeaks main collaborator for several years decides to close its operations. Did he jump or was he pushed? We’ll never know, most probably, but “Daniel Schmitt”, as Domscheit-Berg was known then, the author, walks free amongst the living whilst Julian (concerned about being extradited to the US) is holed up at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London without much prospect of release anytime soon.

According to Wikipedia (1) “Domscheit-Berg left with a small group to start OpenLeaks.com, a new leak organisation and website with a different management and distribution philosophy. [This has not actually happened] While leaving, Daniel Domscheit-Berg copied and then deleted roughly 3,500 unpublished documents from the WikiLeaks servers, including information on the US government’s ‘no-fly list’ and inside information from 20 right-wing organizations, and according to a WikiLeaks statement, 5 gigabytes of data relating to Bank of America, the internal communications of 20 neo-Nazi organisations and US intercept information for “over a hundred internet companies.” In Domscheit-Berg’s book he wrote: “To this day, we are waiting for Julian to restore security, so that we can return the material to him, which was on the submission platform”. In August 2011, Domscheit-Berg claims he permanently deleted the files “in order to ensure that the sources are not compromised”.

At one point in the film Assange tells Daniel: “courage is contagious”. The film seems to be saying: “and so is fear”. Cold war stereotypical “spooks” lurk around doing nothing in particular, just being. They are identified by the representative of the more official type press, The Guardian newspaper, the Forth Estate. “Fourth Estate” most commonly refers to the news media; especially print journalism or “the press”. Thomas Carlyle attributed the origin of the term to Edmund Burke, who used it in a parliamentary debate in 1787 on the opening up of press reporting of the House of Commons of Great Britain. Wikipedia. Today many charge this Forth Estate with being in reality the voice of big corporations which own the Media and use it to impose a political and economic model on the rest of the population.

“The term “Fifth Estate” has no fixed meaning, but is used — following a formulation that dates back to the 18th century — to describe any class or group in society other than the clergy (First Estate), the nobility (Second Estate), the commoners (Third Estate), and the press (Fourth Estate). It has been used to describe civil society (including trade unions) and the poor or the proletariat. It can also be used to describe media outlets (including the blogosphere) that see themselves in opposition to mainstream media (the official Press)…William Dutton has argued that the Fifth Estate is not simply the blogging community, nor an extension of the media, but ‘networked individuals’ enabled by the Internet in ways that can hold the other estates accountable.” Wikipedia

It is no small wonder that Assange refused to have anything to do with the film. A letter he sent to Cumberbatch and published by The Guardian (which was central to the publication of many of the secret cables) illustrates his views: “Dreamworks has based its entire production on the two most discredited books on the market”. As for the charges of sexual misbehaviour, the film appears to sit on the fence, but in fact suggests that Assange lied about it.

Who are we to believe in a world of “Astroturfing” (masking the source of a message to give the appearance of it coming from disinterested parties), “False flag” (covert  operations designed to deceive in such a way that they appear as though they are being carried out by other entities, groups or nations E.g., in Syria),  “agents provocateurs”(undercover agents  that seek to discredit or harm another group  by pretending to be part of it but undertaking actions contrary to its principles), ID theft, internet impersonation, false tweeting from someone else’s name, and making a film that on the surface appears to try to present a “balanced” view, but deep down is shooting the messenger with near subliminal messages.

Whistleblowers are dangerous because they protect sources whilst revealing  money trails, clearing away smoke screens and bringing glasnost to the world of secrets. In fairness, this is actually shown in The Fifth Estate. No doubt this will not be the last film about WikiLeakes and Assange, the story is still unfolding.

(1)   Wikipedia is a very useful on line Encyclopedia but always has to be taken with a pinch of salt, as a recent Simpsons episode shows: when Homer hears that he is being badmouthed in Wikipedia he decidedly states: “OK, I’ll have to change it when I get home”

Categories: Culture and Media, International issues, Opinions
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