Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Fifth Estate [2013]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  ChicagoTribune (2 Stars) (2 Stars)  AVClub (C+)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (C. Lemire) review
AVClub (B. Kenigsberg) review

The Fifth Estate [2013] (directed by Bill Condon, screenplay by Josh Singer, based on the books Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website by Daniel Domscheit-Berg [IMDb-p] [IMDb-ch] and  WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy by David Leigh [IMDb] and Luke Harding [IMDb]), which enjoyed a special screening at the recent 49th Chicago International Film Festival  prior to its wide-release in the United States, is about one of the most controversial people of recent times, Julian Assange [IMDb-p] [IMDb-ch], the founder of the (universal) whistle-blower site  It's a film that is IMHO paradoxically both fascinating and dated and ultimately could serve as a very good young adult discussion piece.

The film is dated because the continued revelations stemming from nouveau über-leaker (yup, I loved putting that word construction together ;-), former National Security Agency contract worker Edward Snowden, make it clear that neither Assange nor his website are now essential for deep dark government / corporate secrets to be exposed.  What are needed are people disturbed after coming into contact with something that they find profoundly wrong willing to be(come) whistle-blowers and a Free/Credible/Professional Press to report (after appropriate fact-checking...) the news brought to it by them.  Indeed, among the true heroes of the film, one would have to say, would have to be the staff at The Guardian (website) who always took Assange seriously and (as per the film) were always willing to extend a hand to help him (Whether he was willing to accept their advice/help becomes another matter and a plot-point in the film).
However be this as it may (that Assange and his website are and perhaps always were "unncessary" / "irrelevant"), thanks to his Samson-like will (perhaps mixed with some arrogance) the world has indeed been changed by him.  Both the People and the Press are awake, if only temporarily, as a result of him.  And that makes him then, IMHO, a fascinating person. 

Now who is this Julian Assange [IMDb-p] [IMDb-ch] (played in the film by Benedict Cumberbatch), and where (what milieu) did he come from?  This is what this film is about.  Yes, it's gossipy (Australian, Assange is presented as having come from a hippy single-mother household and spent at least part of his childhood with her in some sort of a New Age-y cult called "The Family" ... Assange denies this).  To some extent the film is formulaic (Like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as presented in The Social Network [2010], Julian Assange, human rights activist that he may feel himself to be, is presented in the film as someone who relates far better to the virtual world of the Internet than to actual people).  And to a good extent the film's observations may once more be irrelevant (Why should one necessarily care if Julian Assange "may have trouble relating to people" if despite his flaws he made the world a better place (for all)?)  Still as gossipy or trite as the film may be characterized as being, we are all people and wish to understand the people who effect our world _as people_ as well.  So IMHO the film-makers' attempt to try to understand who Assange is and what makes him tick is ultimately legitimate.

In the film-makers' attempt to do so, they lean heavily on Daniel Berg [IMDb-p] [IMDb-ch] (played in the film by Daniel Brühl) Assange's (former?) friend and the author of one of the two books on which the film is based.  A German hacker / human rights activist, Berg is presented as being initially in awe of the Australian hacker and wikileaks founder who he meets in person for the first time at a hacker convention in Berlin (Indeed, Berg had been asked, presumably by Assange, to introduce him at a conference that Assange was to give at the convention).  It would also appear that Assange, presented in the film as a profoundly mistrustful-loner, was genuinely appreciative of both Berg's programming abilities (comparable to or at least "in the same league" as his own) and access (to the anarcho-hacker community in Berlin/Europe) and was at least initially appreciative of  Berg's friendship (Berg and his circle of friends were people who would have been able to understand both Assange's abilities and motivations). 

But Assange is presented in the film as a deeply contradictory figure: Though it's clear that he wants to defend human rights, he can't seem to relate well to people.  As such, his beloved creation Wikileaks is presented in the film as something of a virtual Potemkin village.  On one hand Assange talks of Wikileaks as "a movement" with "hundreds, thousands of volunteers."  But when Berg asks him about this in a very practical way (Why not share some of the verification work that Wikileaks has to do with some of those volunteers?) it becomes clear (AT LEAST IN THE FILM) that Wikileaks is basically JUST Assange and Berg.  Those "hundreds of volunteers" are generally just decoy electronic mailboxes and identities.

Now there is actually a logic to this: Volunteers themselves could become compromised, become sources of leaks, but ... what does it do to the credibility of a "movement" when honestly no one knows how large it actually is and one progressively discovers (perhaps even to one's dismay, as Berg apparently did) that "the movement" was essentially only the size of one or two people (him and Assange)?  Add then the obvious:  Berg's world is larger than simply Assange.  Berg has a girlfriend, another computer programmer named Anke (played by Alicia Vikander).  Assange is presented as having difficulty enough relating to Berg.  He's presented then as having no idea of how to relate to Anke, and then Anke is presented as someone who really comes to dislike him.  (Note here that as gossipy as this all may sound, Assange has famously (or infamously) been accused of criminal sexual misconduct in Sweden.  At least on some level, therefore, he's objectively had some trouble relating properly with women).

Now Assange is presented as having (had) other allies/sympathizers, notably at The Guardian (website).  Nick Davies (played by David Thewlis) of The Guardian is a significant character in the film in good part to remind us of this and of the fact that the second book on which this film is based was written by David Leigh [IMDb] and Luke Harding [IMDb]) of The Guardian.  But is Assange able to trust them?  Or is he just too closed in on himself to be able to trust anybody (even potential allies in some powerful quarters who could be / have been useful to him)?  That appears to be a question that the good folks at The Guardian ask about him.

The Fifth Estate [2013] becomes then the second (Hollywood) film of its sort -- the other being The Social Network [2010] about Facebook's founder Mark Zuckerberg -- in which a computer programming whiz who has arguably changed the world has been also portrayed as someone with deep problems with relating to others.  Is it fair?  Should it matter?   And is this characterization even particularly correct?  Zuckerberg, for instance, is married.  And Assange has been "relateable enough" to repeatedly call the film a pack of lies.

Anyway, IMHO the film would probably make for a very good "young adult" discussion piece about both the way news is presented (and at times "outed") in our world today and also about the ever increasingly important role that previously marginalized "geeks" are having in it.  

And without a doubt positively, film makes the anarcho-hacker milieu of Berlin's neon-lit internet cafes today supremely interesting.   As the film has Assange himself marvelling to Berg when he first arrives in Berlin, "Who would have guessed that the former heart of jackbooted Fascism would now be such a center of internet freedom."   Yes, indeed, who could have possibly guessed that after so much history (both as the center of Hitler's Germany and then at the very fault-line during the Cold War) it would today be unbelievably cool for a young person today to be able to say: "Ich bin ein Berliner." ;-) 

So in the end, good film folks, very good film!

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