The team behind Bill Condon’s “The Fifth Estate” has been very clear that they do not want their own opinions on Wikileaks founder Julian Assange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) or Wikileaks defector Daniel Domscheit-Berg (played by Daniel Brühl) known. In a panel centering on “Fifth Estate” producers Participant Media, Dreamworks CEO Stacey Snider said that the fact that Wikileaks’ fate was still developing (with Assange still in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, having sought asylum there) meant that the filmmakers needed to be balanced in their presentation of the situation. Introducing the film last night, director Bill Condon emphasized the evenhandedness of the film’s portrayal of particularly Assange.
Talking to an industry audience, Snider fixed on the way the film used fictionalization to do the work of balancing out perspectives on the film’s lead characters.
In truth, what happens is that the film features so many story lines and so many perspectives that the viewer is disoriented and doesn’t have much to go on in evaluating what really happened.
The idea that their ambiguity in this fictionalization leads to balance results in facts being obscured in the service of giving everyone a fair shake. In a line that is replicated in a recreated interview in the film, Assange says of “The Fifth Estate,” “[It’s] based on the two worst books” about Wikileaks.
But still the film changes up (or simplifies) more than its source material does. While one glaring omission from the film is that it glosses over positive accomplishments that resulted from information being leaked by the organization (See, for instance, Greg Mitchell’s list of things learned from the Private Manning leaks). Here’s a list of five aspects of the film that obscured the truth behind Wikileaks:
There are two title cards at the end of the film implying that while Wikileaks’ media partners (The New York Times, Der Spiegel, and The Guardian) published redacted documents from the Afghan (and Iraq) War Logs and the State Department cables. Then, the film implies that the leaks were eventually released unredacted.
The situation is complicated. According to Wikileaks, the Afghan War Logs were not released in full at first. As Glenn Greenwald reported when he was at Salon, the Pentagon refused to cooperate with Wikileaks’ requests for help with redacting 15,000 documents held back from the initial release. As for the unredacted State Department cables, various fingers have been pointed over who actually released the information needed for the unredacted documents to be released to the public. BoingBoing’s Rob Beschizza covers the finger-pointing over the incident, with Wikileaks saying that The Guardian editor David Leigh revealed a password to a torrent file that held the unredacted cables. Writing for the Guardian, James Ball, a journalist formerly associated with Wikileaks who is also interviewed in Alex Gibney’s Wikileaks doc “We Steal Secrets,” blamed (be patient, this is confusing) a number of leaks related to that password on the WikiLeaks Twitter feed, which cited a member of the team behind OpenLeaks (this is the site that Domscheit-Berg creates after leaving Wikileaks).
The film presents a State Department official under Hillary Clinton who fears her longterm Libyan informant, who had access to the Gaddafi government, will be targeted once the leaks are made public.
This is a fabrication of the film created to make real the potential that many Wikileaks critics have made, saying that Wikileaks made no effort to minimize the harm the leaks could have and that it is possible the leaks could put people mentioned in them in danger.
The film does not treat Assange as if the US government is investigating him.
There was potentially an allusion of this in Snider’s response on the Participant Panel, and Cumberbatch made a comment at the film’s press conference, saying of his opinion of Assange’s current situation “It’s very complicated, and I’m not a legal activist. What I’d like to see is the man able to carry on, able to do his work as the founder of Wikileaks. Beyond that, due process has to take place in whatever shape or form.” The film presents the sexual crimes that Assange is supposedly in hiding from as the only real threat to him by the world’s criminal justice systems. This is obviously a contentious assumption, especially as we have seen the prosecution of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden’s asylum-seeking.
The film portrays Assange as a transparency absolutist, wanting to release all documents, unedited.
In an interview with a Bulgarian investigative journalism site, Assange said, “I believe in the right to communicate and the inviolability of history, privacy for the weak and transparency for the powerful.”
There’s a device in the film where Assange repeatedly explains his white hair by pointing out all of the parts of his life that stress him out. At the end of the film, Domscheit-Berg reveals that he knows Assange, influenced by a cultish boyfriend his mother had, dyes his hair white.
Cute, and it allows for a line along the lines of “Everyone has their secrets,” but there’s no mention of this accusation in the source material.