Monday, October 14, 2013

Film Review: The Fifth Estate (Bill Condon) 2013

The Fifth Estate
Wikileaks is an online organization that allows whistleblowers a virtual space to publish unedited, leaked documents that are deemed politically important and in the interest of individuals, as opposed to institutions.  This seems to me like a noble and democratic aim, if not slightly vague on the nuances of handling sensitive information.  The problem with making a decent film about an organization like this is that by its very construct, cinema has to edit, exaggerate and editorialize information in order to gain an audience – thus doing everything that goes against the principles of the focus of the film.  It is only possible to give a version of events, instead of the definitive account of an event – a line that is spoken towards the end of the film by Julian Assange, the founder of the website.  Here is my version, of the version of events contained within the film:

The narrative begins with Daniel Burg (Daniel Brühl) refreshing his web browser on the eve of The Guardian, The New York Times and Die Spiegel simultaneously publishing thousands of leaked war logs recounting the Afghanistan war.  The story then jumps back two years to a time when Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) first meets Daniel in Berlin as he is trying to get information about his web vision to any audience who will listen.  The two get together and publish their first big story, information about tax fraud committed by a Swiss bank.  As they begin to get more and more leaks published, a tension grows between them about whether it is ethical to edit the information before release, in order to protect people, or whether any redactions declare inherent bias.  The story then dramatically builds to the moment where we began on the eve of the war logs release and the immediate geopolitical aftermath.

Wikileaks (or more specifically Assange himself) have denied the version of events depicted in the film claiming that it is a case of character assassination as opposed to focus on the wider point.  They decided to leak a copy of the script on the eve of the films release in order to spoil the debut.  However, there are far more troubling elements in the film that the representation of the protagonist.  In order to visualize the ethical dichotomy that Daniel is in, the film keeps referring back to a clumsy visual metaphor of a never-ending office space full of computers that is manned at times entirely of Julians, or nothing but Daniels.  This reminds me of the scene in W., another recent-history biopic, where George Bush is stood on the baseball field waiting for the ball to land…needlessly ‘symbolic’. 

The Fifth Estate feels a lot like David Fincher’s brilliant The Social Network, yet Fincher frankly had a better script to work from.  Both have lofty names using the definitive article “The” in order to signal the announcement of a new online landscape; both films have loads of shots of computers and servers and characters talking about IP addresses and coding; and they also both largely ignore women in their utopian digital futures.  The only two real female characters in The Fifth Estate are an emotionally drained old-school Washington bureaucrat (Laura Linney) whose only function is to despair about her undercover operatives around the world and their safety in the face of Assange and his online radicals, and Daniel’s girlfriend Anke (Alicia Vikander) who plays the stereotypical role of ‘moral female’ who makes Daniel question his own motives in publishing private information about individuals (in this case, the names and addresses of BNP members).

There is much to be enjoyed in the film, especially for an audience of news junkies.  All of the scenes filmed inside the Guardian, NYT and Die Spiegel buildings give an interesting insight into journalistic practice, and are filmed with a reverence that obviously declares the political persuasion of the filmmakers.  It is an unashamedly liberal film aimed at liberal audiences, with the negativity that is aimed at Assange being entirely against his egotism than his vision.

The film is also hugely celebratory of European metorpolitanism.  Berlin, Zurich, London and somewhere called Hacking at Random in Vierhouten (Netherlands) are all presented as the centre of the digital universe, where cutting edge hackers are creating an idealistic resistance to corrupt globalization and governments – a kind of underground Silicon Valley.  The filmmakers want you to believe that the age of governments and corporations is ending and the rise of the empowered digital individual is upon us (the final speech from Assange is almost cringingly optimistic), yet by showing so much danger and corruption in Africa and the Middle East, it simply reinforces this European supremacy.

Overall, I think the film deserves to be seen, even if only by a sympathetic liberal audience (the cinema I watched it in was whisper quiet and mainly inhabited by solo viewers).  I can’t help but wonder how this film will play in the USA…

For the Alex Gibney documentary about Wikileaks - click here

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