CCNMA: Too many secrets — The Fifth Estate

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Are your weekend entertainment plans certified? CCNMA is a weekly feature that explores the movie industry’s love-hate relationship with computing technology. This week’s movie is  NOW IN THEATERS .

It takes two to upset the applecart, as they say, or as Movie Julian Assange puts it in The Fifth Estate, “Two people and a secret: The beginning of any conspiracy and all corruption.” I don’t know whether real life Julian Assange, the Australian white hat hacker who birthed whistleblowing data trove WikiLeaks into cyberspace, actually ever said that — but it’s a good line and the movie provides it with a pointed double meaning. Assange, of course, famously (and, for some, rather infamously) has an interest in exposing conspiracy and corruption, and The Fifth Estate suggests that rooting out conspiracy as an obsession is perilously close to adopting it as a way of life.

There’s a telling scene fairly early in the movie where Assange, who has gained the trust and partnership of German tech whiz and fellow hacktivist Daniel Berg, finally agrees that it’s time for Berg to meet WikiLeaks’ inner circle. Let’s just say that it’s a much smaller circle than Berg has been led to expect, and that Assange may have overstated the involvement of hundreds of volunteers behind the scenes by, oh, hundreds. “Every startup exaggerates its size,” Assange explains. Indeed. What was that about the beginning of any conspiracy and all corruption?

Though on balance The Fifth Estate arguably celebrates Assange more than it damns him, it’s probably not the story that Ecuador’s most famous political refugee would have told about himself. Not surprisingly, what we’re shown is largely based on two books, including one by Berg (who became Daniel Domscheit-Berg by marriage to Anke Domscheit in 2010), that Assange directly condemns as being “full of lies” in a cheeky fourth-wall-blurring monologue at the end of the movie. (The real-life Assange publicly leveled that very assertion.)

Guess what, Julian? Every story, including all of the ones that aren’t — or at least purport not to be — pure fiction, is full of lies. At different moments and to different characters in The Fifth Estate, it’s both a badge of honor and a bone of contention that WikiLeaks doesn’t edit the information that falls into its lap. Yet given the vagaries of memory and the spurs of self-interest (whether individual or collective), even incidents recounted by firsthand participants are bound to be at least a few degrees removed from incontrovertible reality. When even a photograph can be edited, the only place to look for the truth is in somebody’s version of events.

One thing that seems to be generally accepted is that Assange’s prodigious cybersavvy provided the backbone of WikiLeaks, including his development (or at least co-development) of Rubberhose, a deniable encryption system. As the movie explains it, the WikiLeaks archive protects actual vital information by masking it with multiple layers of digital balderdash. And when a court injunction from the United States temporarily suspends WikiLeaks, Assange is already one step ahead, confidently asserting that, “Our mirror sites make it impossible to put the genie back in the bottle.”

It’s often difficult to dramatize action based on computer file transfers, data sharing, etc., but director Bill Condon (also an Oscar-winning screenwriter) and writer Josh Singer at least deserve points for trying something different. They make an admirable, if not entirely successful, attempt to visualize the electronic innards of WikiLeaks as an enormous room of computer terminals extending beyond the limits of vision. The digital dreamscape is ultimately more distracting than illuminating, though it does add dramatic flair to a key scene of betrayal.

Another cinematic weakness of The Fifth Estate is the way it force feeds a ring of U.S. government officials into its story. This subplot seems intended to both dramatize the enormity of WikiLeaks’ actions and give a human face to the anonymous masses identified and, in some cases, incriminated or imperiled by the site’s most notorious avalanches of leaked documents. There’s also a small cache of notable supporting actors here, with Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci and Anthony Mackie all taking visible roles. Yet the “meanwhile, in America” business doesn’t blend nearly as well with the main story as a second major subplot involving British, American and German journalists.

That subplot adds Peter Capaldi, David Thewlis and Downton Abbey darling Dan Stevens to the mix, and we haven’t even gotten to the core cast: Unlikely heartthrob and flavor-of-the-year Benedict Cumberbatch is alternately cold, dismissive, impassioned and even vulnerable as a multilayered Assange, while German actor Daniel Bruhl (Rush) handles the more sympathetic role of Berg with calm competence. Cumberbatch and Bruhl are the brightest stars, but not the only ones to shine in a constellation of familiar European faces that includes Alicia Vikander, Carice Van Houten and Moritz Bleibtru.

The movie circles back more than once to the point raised by Cumberbatch’s Assange that lots of people have good ideas, but it takes a rare and precious strain of iron-willed commitment to change the world. Speaking truth to power and banishing corruption can start with just “one moral man.” The Fifth Estate ends in a split decision — we’re uncertain whether it most intends to affix that label to evangelist Assange or good lieutenant Berg — but its final appeal is to viewers. What do you make of all of this? Will the next moral man — or woman — please stand up?


WIGGING OUT: Some people who don’t recognize Julian Assange by name or reputation could probably pick him out in a crowd, at least as being a famous somebody they saw on the news. His hippie-length, strikingly white hair is hard to miss, and Cumberbatch’s Assange frequently jokes about it in the movie. The actor wore wigs, and the movie hints that the actual Assange’s signature locks are almost as much of a put-on. In a scene at the end of the movie, narration from Bruhl’s Berg claims that Assange has colored his hair since childhood.

SPACE CASE: It merits only a passing mention in The Fifth Estate, but Assange is widely credited with being one of the hackers behind the WANK attack on NASA in 1989. The WANK-ers successfully introduced a worm to a computer network shared by NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy, immediately prior to the launch of the Galileo spacecraft aboard the shuttle Atlantis.

BATTERY NOT INCLUDED:  What, you may have wondered, is this Assange guy up to today? The movie shows Assange take refuge at the Ecuadorian embassy in London on June 19, 2012, but scarcely has a moment to mention what he’s doing there. Assange sought asylum from the Ecuadorians while fleeing an arrest warrant connected to allegations of sexual assault involving two women. He has since remained in a one-room living quarters at the embassy, stating that, beyond the assault allegations, which would be investigated further in Sweden, he fears extradition to the United States.

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Chip Hartweir


CHIP HARTWEIR is a Certified Cinemaniac who likes movies, computers and especially movies about computers. He has won numerous awards for writing about film and has a keyboard within arm's reach most hours of the day. E-mail him at chiphartweir (at) gmail (dot) com.

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