Who are the good guys in ‘Fifth Estate’

If you haven’t seen photos of Julian Assange, the leader and founder of WikiLeaks, you might rank Benedict Cumberbatch’s blonde dye job for his new movie “The Fifth Estate” as one of the worst since Kenneth Branagh went blond for an otherwise excellent “Hamlet.”

Branagh is British and Assange is Australian. I don’t know here Branagh is at the moment, but Assange is in the U.K. Assange is actually WikiLeaks leader in an odd Ecuadorian exile: He’s only made it as far as the London Ecuadorean embassy, but he won’t be quieted and he does have an opinion about even the movie before it has opened.

Assange has been the embassy guest since June 2012 and cannot leave without the possibility of being arrested and extradited to Sweden where he faces charges of sexual assault.

Even if you haven’t been captivated by the story of how a loosely structured organization of hackers were able to stun the world, including the United States,  with government documents, as long as you’re using a computer and have some kind of life online, you need to consider the issues raised.

Sure we all want to think that hackers are bad people. Perhaps not just because they steal identities and make our own lives miserable, but also because they are smarter than most of us. They swim and surf in cyberspace like a cyber-seal or sea lion. They are fluent in coding, but not usually in human relations. Nothing like a powerful person without warm, fuzzy people skills.

Hacking and the fifth estate might be the future of journalism and certainly has traditional  journalists feeling anxious. So we have to be geeks and writers? Are new wave ambush-journalists and muckrackers the hacking crusaders of WikiLeaks and do journalism programs need to be completely rehauled?

These are the questions we needs to ask in our rapidly changing world and if the movie “Fifth Estate” doesn’t ask these questions, it should.

The movie’s title is derived from from what was originally only three. In the European Middle Ages in Christian Europe, the society was divided into three estates: the clergy, the nobility and the commoners.  Thomas Carlyle wrote, “Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all” in his book “On Heroes and Hero Worship.”  The fourth estate has come to mean the press. The fifth estate has been used to describe the poor, but now media researchers call bloggers the fifth estate because they are, according to William Dutton, not part of the press media because the bloggers are able to hold the other estates accountable by using the Internet.

Yet one of the arguments of the movie is accountability. The movie is based on Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s book “Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange and the World’s Most Dangerous Website” and British journalists’ book “WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy.”  On the one hand, you have a disgruntled former volunteer, but one that doesn’t have the legal claims as we saw in another geek biopic, “The Social Network.”  On the other, we have members of the beleaguered press from a country that very recently had a widespread press scandal about a different kind of hacking.

In the movie, Daniel Domscheit-Berg meets Julian Assange for the first time in the flesh at a hacker conference in Europe. With Domscheit-Berg,  Assange is able to speak so a dismally small crowd during a room’s sound check for a scheduled talk. This will serve as contrast to later meetings, press conferences and presentations when Assange becomes the king hacker, the peoples’ crusader holding court.

The movie looks at questionable tactics. Online, it’s so easy to build up an audience or organization. You’ve seen suspiciously good reviews, written by the business itself or paid writers. You can add to the numbers of anyone as one or more people by building up aliases through different free services.  In the movie, this is represented as a fantasy room filled with endless desks. This is how WikiLeaks is presented at first. Domscheit-Berg is seduced into joining an organization that is revealed to be nothing more than two people: only Daniel Domscheit-Berg and Assange are there. What would seem to be a loosely knit organization is actually Assange using a large number of email addresses to give the appearance of a following.

This is the first deception of many. Some how, the financial details weren’t adequately explained, Assange traverses the world, flying to Africa and Europe, crusading, getting people to trust him and his WikiLeaks. With Assange, Daniel Domscheit-Berg helps build up the website, creating a platform where people can anonymously leak information. There is no redacting in the documents and this leads to the death of people in Africa, serving as the first warning. When WikiLeaks finally receives the largest number of U.S. intelligence documents ever leaked, Assange and Domscheit-Berg argue over ethical issues and gain legitimacy when they team up with three newspapers to reveal this classified information.

Domscheit-Berg argues for redacting all the names, and scenes show the U.S. government officials scrambling to save their informants and operatives.  Finally, Assange declares that Domscheit-Berg is no longer a member of WikiLeaks.

In the end, a sadder and wiser Domscheit-Berg  reveals that so much about Assange is fake and Domscheit-Berg  suggests Assange suffers from the lingering effects of his supposed childhood under a cult leader, a cult which required all its followers to bleach their hair.

That should keep you thinking, but a search on the Internet reveals very little about this supposed cult and Assange, in a recent criticism of the movie, denies that his white hair is anything but natural.  Although the movie isn’t out yet (opens on 18 October 2013), WikiLeaks has received copies of several scripts and received information from people attending the premiere in Toronto.

In a response to Cumberbatch’s request to meet prior to the shooting of principle scenes for the movie, Assange criticized the movie of being an instrument of the U.S. government:

The United States government has engaged almost every instrument of its justice and intelligence system to pursue—in its own words—a ‘whole of government’ investigation of ‘unprecedented scale and nature’ into WikiLeaks under draconian espionage laws. Our alleged sources are facing their entire lives in the US prison system. Two are already in it. Another one is detained in Sweden.

Cumberbatch uses his sonorous voice to demand our attention, even when he plays Assange as bristling with arrogant anger when he’s forced to contend with a sound check crew while giving his talk to a sparse audience.  His Assange is a bit creepy and self-involved; he’s focused on his crusade and not the little people or the other people in the room (unless they are helping with the hacking. He’s looking for “one moral man” who under the cloak of secrecy is willing to reveal immoral deeds, but is Assange the victim of his own ego? This isn’t the brilliant, but sociopath Sherlock Holmes Cumberbatch plays in the series. There’s something slightly grungy about Cumberbatch’s Assange, something in the way he speaks as well makes one uneasy.

However, as the real Assange writes, this movie is only one side of the story, or at least the side of the established press and a former disgruntled co-worker. Who are we to believe? Decide for yourself. As a victim of some questionable employment tactics by Yahoo covering its workers comp cases and equally questionable legal tactics from Murphy & Beane as a result of the same, part of me is cheering for the whistleblowers and the crusading Robin Hoods and Good Samaritans of Cyberspace. If there had been “one moral man” or one moral woman, what a difference it would have made for me at Yahoo.

Certainly Assange has emerged as an important figure in this new era of technology and much more will be said and written about him; the truth might not be known for decades, but this movie will give you something to talk about.

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