Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Fifth Estate

Assuaging Assange
Jury Tampering in the Court of Public Opinion

Julian Assange is not a happy camper...camping in the Ecuadorian embassy ("behind Harrod's" as his portrayer Benedict Cumberbatch describes it) in London. He has let it be known in his own little publicity campaign that he does not like The Fifth Estate, and that it is entirely propaganda from unreliable and untrustworthy sources.  I'll take his word for it, as that's been his business model for Wikileaks for quite a few years. 

The problem is that Assange would not be happy with ANY movie of the story unless HE wrote, produced and directed it, so that he could control the information flow to fit his view of events.* Anyone would, really, in the best of all possible worlds. The difference between anyone and Assange is that he actually thinks he could, and not only that, that he should.

The trouble is, "Mendak", it may be your story, but it's not your money financing it, and you're kind of a bad risk, if you know what I mean.  

And, if he would do it, he would insist on doing it himself, even though film is a collaborative medium.  Collaboration, however, might dilute the message, and so, really the only person who could be trusted with it is Assange.  Wait for his version in a couple of decades.  That's the trouble with hubris and megalomania, you always get your message out last and console yourself that you got The Last Word.

(Well, now that I've revealed my prejudices that I think Assange is a creep and something of a deluded creep...) Bill Condon's The Fifth Estate is a return to form on the controversial biographical films he's done in the past (Kinsey, Gods and Monsters), and after mucking about in the very black and white"Twilight" series, here struggles to have any sort of perspective, controversial or otherwise, for a story that is still in process. It also sweats to make something dramatic out of typing away at laptops, which is intrinsically dull, and about as engrossing as watching a movie about a writer who's writing—good in book form, maybe, but unless you go off into some sort of fantasy-land, it's a completely no-thrills scenario.  
For anyone who's been following the Assange story—which was several headline-making revelations ago—The Fifth Estate does less with the recent Iraq War revelations (some of which—like the "Collateral Murder" video weren't even revelations, having already been published in other sources) than it does with the early ground-breaking days of WikiLeaks, Assange's recruiting of Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl)—whose book "Inside WikiLeaks" is one of the sources on which Josh Singer (former writer for "The West Wing" —during the non-Sorkin years—and "Fringe") based his screenplay—and the heady days when it exposed corruption in Kenyan elections and dummy-accounting in the Caymans at Julius-Baer. The worst-kept secret of all was who was running WikiLeaks. Although Assange was the very public face of the site, he would state that there were hundreds of people behind the site, doing due diligence, checking sources, and vetting information that would see the light of scrutiny.
Truth was, there were no "hundreds of people;" it was Assange and Berg and whatever server cluster the two could configure, cobble and co-habit. Vetting was cursory phone calls, or maybe a clandestine meeting beforehand. As far as redacting anything that might threaten lives,** that was nearly impossible (and logistically impossible with the release of diplomatic communications that numbered 400,000 in 2010). As WikiLeaks' revelations become bigger and broader in cope and size, the tiny staff is overwhelmed, keeping an Oz-like public face (Assange's), but not even willing to acknowledge that they might be overwhelmed and out of their depth. Thus, the "open" source hides the biggest secret of all—there's no infrastructure to the web-site other than Assange and Berg.
The "reveal" of this information is done in a "cutesy" illustrative manner. At one stage, Berg wants to talk to the other WikiLeaks members that he's been trading communiques with about sources and information, something Assange is initially reluctant to do. Then, when it becomes a "make or break" request, he gives in, showing Berg his "hold card"—that the other people Berg has been instant-messaging and e-mailing have merely been alternate Assange accounts.  He's only been talking to Julian, which Berg imagines as a scene out of Being John Malkovich crossed with The Apartment of an infinite number of desks in an office, all with Julian Assange sitting behind them. It's a little too literal and maybe just a little condescending to spell it out so baldly to the audience, but ultimately that visual metaphor is stretched as, at critical junctures, that infinite number of Assange's keeps coming back to make fantasy-narrative points that seem unnecessary (other than to conjure up that all those Assange's are going to write the complete works of Shakespeare someday).  
The acting is, across the line, superb: Cumberbatch does a fascinating Assange, adroit, and self-contained, like a chess-player, usually thinking about something else than the topic of conversation, and his final bit—an in-character dismissal of "the two films" coming about WikiLeaks (presumably this film and Alex Gibney's documentary) is a cautionary warning; Brühl, seems to be the go-to guy to play Germanic naifs after Good bye Lenin!, Inglourious Basterdsand Rush, and here plays Berg as an all-too-willing apprentice looking for a mentor; Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci, and Anthony Mackie play American diplomats trying to deal with the fall-out, while David Thewliss and Peter Capaldi play two reporters for The Guardian with suspicious hesitance about their "source."

It's a good dramatization, filling in character holes which Gibney's documentary left unexplored.  The two together make a good summary of events that, as yet, have no ending, but have managed to rock the world, making the cyber-world look frighteningly like a glass-house sitting in a field filled with stones.

* The same attack came from Assange about this year's Alex Gibney documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, which tells the same story, but through interviews and through Gibney's journalistic sensibilities (which produced Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson, Casino Jack and the United States of Money, and Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream).  Critics have been far harsher on The Fifth Estate than We Steal Secrets, either because 1) the documentary is considered more "legitimate" than the dramatic version; 2) Assange's attacks seem to "stick" better to a dramatic recreation than a documentary, or 3) they actually (at a rate of 95% to 37%—which is quite a swing) prefer the techniques of the documentary to The Fifth Estate . But, then, according to Rotten Tomatoes, they've been harsher on The Fifth Estate than the Stallone-Schwarzenegger yarn Escape Plan, which is just inconceivable, and brings Rotten Tomatoes' validity as an indicator of quality and worth as a taste aggregator into suspicion.

** Assange has said that no "outed" operative has been killed, due to the leaks (although The Fifth Estate fictionalizes one such source (Alexander Siddig) being forced to evacuate with his wife and children (in the same way that Patton fictionalizes what might have happened in WWII if, because of Eisenhower's decision to send gasoline to British tanks instead of American ones, if a tank company all of a sudden ran out of fuel behind enemy lines).  1) Assange is probably not a good source for that kind of information as he'd only get it from "whistle-blowers" who might not want to take claim for any deaths (nor would Assange).  2) It's not going to come from American sources who might not want to further risk others (ie "known associates") of anyone affected by it, despite making the case that there WAS some "collateral murder" (to coin a phrase) and making assange and WikiLeaks look bad.  As someone far more Machiavellian once said "The absence of evidence does not mean the evidence of absence."

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