“The Fifth Estate” (2013). Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl, Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci, Anthony Mackie, David Thewlis, Peter Capaldi, Moritz Bleibtreu, Alicia Vikander, Carice van Houten, Alexander Siddig, Jamie Blackley, Jeany Spark. Director: Bill Condon. Screenplay: Josh Singer. Books: Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website, and David Leigh and Luke Harding, WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy. Web site. Trailer.
How clear are we about the motivations driving our actions? Are we sure about the nature of the beliefs we draw upon in creating our reality, or is there some doubt in our minds about the truthfulness of our alleged intents? Getting a handle on the level of clarity we employ when engaging in these practices may perplex and challenge us, even when our motives supposedly appear patently obvious and purely altruistic. But what if they’re not? Such is the conscious creation quandary dissected in the new docudrama, “The Fifth Estate.”
The film, said to be based on actual events, chronicles the rise of the web site WikiLeaks and its enigmatic founder, Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch). The site was created to expose questionable, unethical and even illegal activity by corporate and government entities by making it possible for whistleblowers to anonymously leak secret information and documents about such incidents – disclosures that might not otherwise see the light of day. Assange believed that the prospect of anonymity (and, hence, freedom from ramifications) would encourage more would-be whistleblowers to step forward and reveal information that they would not be able to do by more conventional means. He also hoped that the site would unmask newsworthy revelations that mainstream media organizations were unaware of, willfully ignoring or too timid to cover.
The story opens in Berlin in 2008, when Assange first meets his primary collaborator, Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl), an idealistic computer expert who believes in Assange’s mission. Working covertly and diligently, Assange and Berg (who adopts the pseudonym Daniel Schmitt) soon begin releasing information about various corporate and government bombshells, such as details of the alleged money laundering practices of Switzerland’s Julius Baer Bank and accusations about thousands of extrajudicial killings by the Kenyan police. With these and other revelations, WikiLeaks’ visibility soars and gains valuable support from influential figures, such as Icelandic Parliamentarian Birgitta Jónsdóttir (Carice van Houten). The site even garners the attention of once-skeptical mainstream media outlets, such as The New York Times and Germany’s Der Spiegel. The London-based newspaper The Guardian takes a particularly strong interest, with editor Alan Rusbridger (Peter Capaldi) and investigative reporter Nick Davies (David Thewlis) paying close attention to the upstart organization’s efforts and even seeking to establish a working relationship.
But, as WikiLeaks and Assange gain notoriety, some questions arise, especially for Daniel. For instance, he’s puzzled (and somewhat outraged) when he learns that some of Julian’s investigative tactics don’t match the public pronouncements he makes about them. What’s more, his stated intents for WikiLeaks’ mission appear to change over time, with inflexible dogma slowly, but decidedly, usurping the cause of altruism; Assange becomes more concerned with getting the word out than with the consequences of his organization’s actions, a journalistically perilous course if ever there were one. And then there’s the inscrutability of Assange himself, who is often hard to fathom, even among those closest to him; his statements about his background frequently conflict one another, even about such seemingly simple matters as the truth of how he came to develop his iconic linen white locks.
Questions arise in officialdom, too, especially when the leaked revelations become progressively more damning. Officials in the U.S. State Department (Stanley Tucci, Laura Linney) and Defense Department (Anthony Mackie) place heightened scrutiny on WikiLeaks, especially when fears emerge that the site’s activities may jeopardize sensitive operations and the safety of foreign informants, such as a highly placed Libyan government official (Alexander Siddig).
But those concerns pale compared to what arises in 2010, when WikiLeaks comes into the possession of hundreds of thousands of top secret U.S. government cables through a massive leak executed by Army Specialist Bradley Manning. Suddenly, the stakes for all involved increase exponentially, including operatives throughout the Obama Administration, everyone inside WikiLeaks and the site’s media partners. There’s also a lot on the line in the relationship between Julian and Daniel. And, given the uncharted territory involved, no one is certain how events will play out. But one thing is for sure – the intents behind everyone’s actions will, for better or worse, govern the outcome.
As the foregoing suggests, intent is at the heart of the film’s narrative. What exactly do we wish to accomplish, and are the beliefs underlying those aspirations truly in line with what we seek to achieve? That may not always be as easy to assess as we might imagine, because beliefs can evolve over time, especially when the quest to fulfill their associated objectives becomes progressively more ingrained in our thinking. That can carry unexpected consequences. For instance, as the film shows, when does a just cause quietly transform into a rigid obsession, a fanatical witch hunt or even a reckless smear campaign? In the throes of our fervor, sometimes we can become blinded as to where the line distinguishing those possibilities exists.
The ways in which our beliefs play out as manifested outcomes depend, of course, on the source from which they spring forth (namely, each of us). Our focus ultimately governs the reality we experience since it gives rise to an externalized expression reflective of who we are internally. In Assange’s case, for example, we see an individual obsessed with secrets and their exposure (sometimes no matter what the cost), an ironic circumstance for someone who appears to have plenty of secrets of his own – and who toils to protect their revelation. In a situation like this, one can’t help but wonder what beliefs are driving the fulfillment of these seemingly contradictory – yet very much related – goals. This creates an intriguing conundrum for Julian, as well as for all of the individuals and organizations who work with him – and who try to discern his motives.
Of course, there may be nothing amiss with discrepancies such as this, as they may well be indicators of our intrinsic multidimensional selves. As Assange carries out his “mission” (whatever that might ultimately be), we see the different sides of his character emerge, as illustrated by the foregoing example about secrets and privacy. It’s also apparent in the motives underlying his purposes for establishing WikiLeaks: Are his efforts driven by a desire to expose corruption, or are they about mere self-aggrandizement? Or perhaps it’s some of both, since each aspect is indicative of Assange’s inherent multifaceted nature? If that’s the case (and I’d contend that it is in light of the film’s balanced presentation of the different sides of his character), then he’s at best only partly aware of that nature; he struggles to recognize and reconcile the various sides of himself and the beliefs that each draws upon in creating his reality. It’s a consideration we’d all be wise to heed, given that we, too, each have such an innate multidimensional nature. And, unless we possess a clear understanding of this concept, we might easily find ourselves faced with the same kind of challenge that Julian’s character wrestles with in the movie.
Interestingly (and somewhat ironically), at one point, Assange pleads for “the truth” and not just “someone’s version of the truth.” But, if we each create our own reality, then don’t we each also have our own version of the truth? In making his argument, Julian acknowledges that, to find the truth, one must start with oneself, an observation that would imply that “truth” is characterized by a certain individual relativism. Such a concession would thus seem to contradict the primary basis of his plea. But it also makes clearer than ever the need for each of us to recognize, acknowledge and understand our intents and our fundamental nature if we’re to ever understand ourselves and what we ultimately seek to create.
“The Fifth Estate” is a polished, cleverly directed thriller that serves up more food for thought than what’s apparent in the plot line of its surface story. Director Bill Condon offers up a taut, fascinating picture featuring excellent cinematography, skillful editing, an innovative production design and a terrific soundtrack. The film’s well-written script tells a complicated story about complex issues and characters quite capably, especially in its lucid explanations of intricate concepts concerning Internet technology, international relations and journalistic ethics, all of which are made clear without spoon-feeding the audience or leaving viewers in the dark. The picture is well-paced for the most part, though it has a slight tendency to meander in the second hour, particularly where the U.S. government subplot is concerned. However, considering the high level of intertwined personal, geopolitical, legal and ethical consequences involved, the creative tension is sustained well throughout.
And then there are the performances, which are absolute knock-outs, particularly Brühl and, especially, Cumberbatch. In portraying the protagonist, Cumberbatch turns in a superb, nuanced, award-worthy performance that’s certainly deserving of whatever accolades it earns. I would like to hope the film earns recognition for many of its other fine attributes as well, though, in light of the movie’s tepid performance at the box office and its inexplicably cool critical reception, the picture may unfortunately end up on the trash heap of awards season also-rans.
Given the nature of the characters and story involved, it’s unclear how “truthful” the film is, and we may never clearly know the “real” answer. Assange is said to have assailed the picture as a complete fiction, and it’s possible that the source writers and filmmakers may have their own agendas in telling the story as they have. So, in making up our minds about this picture, maybe we need to recall Assange’s comment about each of us finding the truth by starting with ourselves, a practice that’s at the heart of conscious creation. And, if we do so, we just might be able to successfully dissect our beliefs and clearly discover what’s behind each of our own individual intents. Perhaps that’s the biggest revelation – and the most valuable lesson – to come out of “The Fifth Estate.” Let’s hope we’re all paying attention.
Copyright © 2013, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.