The WikiLeaks saga has been much recounted, with micro-points debated and fact-checked to exhaustion. The story remains fascinating because Julian Assange’s odd prominence is due in part to his warped absolutism about truth and justice.
Consequently, any discussion about WikiLeaks eventually evolves (or devolves) into a discussion on personal morality and how it relates to the political sphere.
So a partially dramatized account of the Assange ordeal is a welcome addition, helping the public to focus on the abstract values underpinning the whole story. And that can be found in The Fifth Estate, a movie released this week.
Benedict Cumberbatch has abandoned his notorious hunkiness in the movie, mimicking Assange uncannily. He manages to replicate Assange’s famous awkwardness, especially as the film depicts Assange’s videotaped dance with himself in Reykjavik. Daniel Brühl is also convincing as Assange’s ex-friend and WikiLeaks right-hand man Daniel Domscheit-Berg.
The friendship between these two men — and Domscheit-Berg’s gradual disillusionment with Assange — forms the main storyline. Domscheit-Berg is initially drawn to Assange’s moral mission, expressed through several canned-sounding mantras such as “remember, courage is contagious.” Assange promises an anonymous forum for “capable generous men, men of purpose,” where whistleblowers can expose corrupt power, protected by principled computer geniuses.
Problem is, Domscheit-Berg discovers, Assange has surprisingly little principle himself. He’s willing to cut corners on source protections, lie about his staff size and security resources, and put possibly thousands of innocent lives in danger.
The philosophical question posed is hardly new, but it is nonetheless poignant: When does a virtue (in this instance, a commitment to truth and justice) become perverted into a vice? Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Assange depicts a man corrupted. And it’s been much speculated that Assange became a man obsessed with his own heroism who lies and deceives prolifically — and supposedly in defense of the truth.
More nuanced is the political question — showcased best through the film’s foil of Assange and the State Department official Sarah Shaw, played sympathetically by Laura Linney — about the role (or possibility) of private or secret information, given both the existence of the modern state and the pervasiveness of technology. Assange takes the extreme position — any secrets whatsoever are destructive to a free society — while Shaw takes a more moderated view; in her words: “300 million people gave us the responsibility of deciding what’s public. Who in God’s name elected [Assange]?”
Accountability becomes another central theme. The idea of a fourth estate — the press — can be traced back to Edmund Burke, who famously said that it is “more important than them all.”
Shifted into the American context, the first three estates are the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. Each holds the others accountable, and the media also does so by putting the fear of God into government. As the newsroom saying goes, “If you don’t want it printed, don’t let it happen.” Meanwhile, journalists’ reputations hinge on their accuracy (which is to some extent reinforced by anti-libel laws) and their judgment, which is supposed to give them a motive to behave responsibly and ethically.
Yet, as The Fifth Estate notes through the character of a British journalist, Assange quickly becomes “a reckless, irresponsible head of a huge media empire that’s accountable to no one.” In real life, this irony holds true: Assange demands privacy and control over his own image, though he absolutely refuses to return the courtesy.
Assange and WikiLeaks claim to represent something else — the fifth estate. Yet both in the film’s depiction and in real life, this purported new estate differs in one critical regard from the other four. Whereas the original four exercise their powers to preserve true rule of law, the fifth estate seeks to get rid of authority altogether — political or otherwise. Assange, an anarchist and America-hater, lives out his bent values to destructive ends. His refusal to redact names may well have resulted in the deaths of soldiers and clandestine foreign partners who had helped the United States.
The contrast between these political values is driven home in a scene involving Sarah Shaw. After classified information is leaked with catastrophic results, Shaw muses over a scotch as she packs up her desk, presumably to retire in shame (and as far as I recall, this is verbatim): “I watched an interview with [Assange] while I was packing up. He said something about pursuing social justice for the last 20 years, so I started thinking . . . two advanced degrees, a Fulbright, three diplomatic posts, 10 years abroad.” And then she continues: “I don’t know which one of us history will judge most harshly.”
The real-life Assange, reportedly infuriated by the fact that someone would portray him without giving him full control over the project, leaked the script to The Fifth Estate on WikiLeaks. But the version there is discrepant in some places with the film itself — which further calls into question Assange’s already doubtable credibility. Notably, his leaked version of the script on Wikileaks contains the same retrospective scene. But Shaw, instead of considering her historical judgment, concludes with: “[Assange] wants to take over saving the world? Be my goddam guest.”
Perhaps that’s Assange’s wish, but his brand of egotistical anarchy is not what the movie, nor the public, supports. The destructive potential of his political philosophy has already been evident. And while Assange may be famous, his accomplishments come with an ethical asterisk. That liberal Hollywood is responsible for this film is a good indicator of his declining stock.
Though the founding ideals of WikiLeaks might be noble, moviegoers will leave The Fifth Estate as disillusioned with Assange as Domscheit-Berg was.
— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.