Is Tinseltown's new WikiLeaks feature film fact or fiction?
Is "The Fifth Estate" history, or the character assassination of Julian Assange?
He's the man who founded the intrepid online outlet that has, according to the movie, released more scoops in three years than The Washington Post has in the past 30 years.
Hollywood heavyweight Bill Condon, who won a Best Writing Academy Award for 1998's "Gods and Monsters, is the director of "The Fifth Estate. The screenplay is by TV writer Josh Singer, whose credits include "The West Wing."
The film is cerebral and complex. Unless you're familiar with the story, you may have trouble following the intricate plot. Especially as this imaginative film deploys creative effects and techniques intended to cinematically express the New Media era.
"Estate" opens with a highly visual rapid montage of images that traces the evolution of communications, from hieroglyphics to the Guttenberg Bible to Morse code to FDR on the radio to CBS newsman Walter Cronkite breaking the news about JFK's assassination on live TV to satellites in outer space and beyond.
The movie shows Assange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) saying, "One moral man, one whistleblower, can topple the most repressive system" through creative use of the Internet. "Cyber-punks concealed in clouds of code hide the identities" of leakers, who can fight for global social justice, proclaims Assange, a messianic Marshall McLuhan for the digital age. WikiLeaks' goals are "privacy for individuals, transparency for institutions, anonymity for sources."
As WikiLeaks reveals secrets about Kenyan government corruption, internal procedures regarding Gitmo detainees, Swiss bank money laundering, a Peruvian oil scandal, Iceland's banking collapse, etc., on its website, Assange grows in stature and picks up acolytes (although, according to "Estate," not nearly as many as he claims).
The Wiki-watchdogs are on a collision course with Uncle Sam, as Icelandic parliamentarian Birgitta Jónsdóttir (portrayed by Carice Van Houten, who was voted Best Dutch Actress of All Time) bravely backs the computerati, although according to "Estate" she was deeply involved in Assange's operations.
The American actors Laura Linney ("Mystic River," "Love Actually") and Stanley Tucci ("Conspiracy", "Julie & Julia", "The Hunger Games") play the Hillary Clinton-esque Sarah Shaw and James Boswell, U.S. government officials hot on the trail of the digital "terrorists," as Newt Gingrich dubs them in a news clip.
The spam hits the fan in April 2010, when the website courageously posts classified 2007 footage of U.S. choppers killing civilians, including children and Reuters staffers in Iraq. Assange boldly calls it "collateral murder" and unveils it at the National Press Club in the belly of the Bush beast: Washington, D.C. The following month Army Specialist Chelsea Manning is arrested in connection to the release of this video disclosing U.S. forces committing war crimes. By July 2010, The New York Times, Der Spiegel, The Guardian and WikiLeaks publish up to 91,000 secret U.S. military documents about the Afghan War.
Whether or not these classified cables were redacted to conceal informants' identities and whether any of these sources were killed due to WikiLeaks' alleged recklessness become bones of contention in this film.
Until now, Cumberbatch may be best known to viewers for playing a decidedly eccentric Holmes in the ongoing BBC TV series "Sherlock", which sets the world's most famous detective in modern London. Cumberbatch brings this eccentricity to his portrayal of Assange as an extremely quirky, temperamental egoist who, during a troubled childhood, belonged to a cult called The Family.
The WikiLeaks website denies this and many other accusations, including that he dyes his hair white, and grouses: "These authors had an interest in portraying Julian Assange as dishonest or manipulative for competitive, personal and legal reasons." How was WikiLeaks able to critique a movie that wasn't even theatrically released yet? Because, but of course, versions of the screenplay (one is posted at its site) were surreptitiously divulged to Assange's operation -- they don't call it WikiLeaks for nothing!
On Oct. 9, 2013, WikiLeaks published a January letter from Assange to Cumberbatch explaining why he declined the actor's request to meet with the man he is incarnating: "There are dozens of positive books about WikiLeaks, but DreamWorks decided to base its script only on the most toxic."
In its "Talking Points on The Fifth Estate" WikiLeaks derides the movie as "a work of fiction masquerading as fact" that seeks to contextualize "how WikiLeaks is perceived."
"This film does not occur in a historical vacuum, but appears in the context of ongoing efforts to bring a criminal prosecution against WikiLeaks and Julian Assange for exposing the activities of the Pentagon and the US State Department," they insist. "The film also occurs in the context of Pvt. Manning's upcoming appeal and request for a presidential pardon... The US and UK governments are in the middle of a crackdown on whistleblowers and national security journalism. A confrontation between the free press and the secret state is currently playing out."
Was Assange motivated to release massive databases depicting crimes against humanity because of purported personal peculiarities? If so, let's hope more members of the Fourth Estate catch these personality "defects" -- after all, as Assange says, "Courage is contagious."
Meanwhile, Chelsea Manning is behind bars at Leavenworth, Edward Snowden, who was assisted by WikiLeaks during his recent travails, is in exile in Russia, and Julian Assange remains at the Ecuadorian embassy in London as the world's most famous political refugee.
"The Fifth Estate" opens in the U.K. Oct. 11 and in the U.S. Oct. 18.
This trailer was published to YouTube on July 16, 2013.