The Side of Julian Assange You Won’t See in The Fifth Estate

Reviews of the latest films.
Oct. 16 2013 10:13 AM

Secrets and Lies

Would any hacker trust the Julian Assange portrayed in The Fifth Estate?

Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Brühl in The Fifth Estate.
Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Brühl in The Fifth Estate.

Courtesy DreamWorks Pictures

At the end of The Fifth Estate, Julian Assange, as played by Benedict Cumberbatch, comments on the film itself. When asked about an in-the-works WikiLeaks movie, he replies disdainfully, “Which one?” In his open letter to Cumberbatch, though, Assange is invested to the point of hyperbole:

David Auerbach David Auerbach

David Auerbach is a writer and software engineer based in New York. His website is http://davidauerba.ch.

I believe you are a good person, but I do not believe that this film is a good film. … If the film reaches distribution we will forever be correlated in the public imagination. Our paths will be forever entwined. Each of us will be granted standing to comment on the other for many years to come and others will compare our characters and trajectories.

Cumberbatch’s Assange would have been far less ingratiating and far more hostile, losing Assange’s loquacious half-charm in favor of blunt, principled statements of open disdain. While The Fifth Estate gets a lot of details right, it misses the big picture—politically and psychologically.

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On technical details, it must be said, The Fifth Estate is pretty good. Whenever Assange uses his computer, we see meaningful Linux text, with IRC chat, the process table (which lists every program currently running and how much CPU it’s consuming), and no graphics. Even young Julian’s Commodore 64 looks exactly like what Assange really had in the mid-’80s. We’ve come a long way from Sneakers. But in terms of politics, The Fifth Estate is shallow. (Killing reporters bad! Leaking informants’ names also bad!) We see the grotesque “Collateral Murder” video of deadly airstrikes against Iraqis and two Reuters reporters in Baghdad, but little is said about the video’s meaning or its impact. The film cuts off at the publication of the initial Cablegate articles, the coordinated pieces published by the Guardian, the New York Times, Der Spiegel, El Pais, and Le Monde analyzing the 250,000 classified diplomatic cables that U.S. Army analyst Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley) leaked to WikiLeaks. It’s also vague on what was in the cables, aside from nasty comments about dictators. At the end of the film, a tremendous amount of history passes by in seconds via intertitles. Manning is reduced to a single pixelated picture, when she deserved to be at the heart of the story; they could have at least mentioned that she was subjected to wretched, possibly torturous conditions while jailed, especially since Assange has staunchly defended her as a hero to the public.

The film paints Assange as a visionary selling a new cause, but Assange didn’t instigate the transparency movement; he did exaggerate WikiLeaks’ numbers, as the movie repeatedly points out, but he was not an army of one. A glance at a WikiLeaks email dump from way back in 2007 reveals much bickering, ending with longtime transparency advocate John Young declaring, “Fuck your cute hustle and disinformation campaign against legitimate dissent.” As far as the film is concerned, though, the entire leak movement is made up of one brave man and a few of his minions. This is a problem that artistic narrative has yet to come to grips with: Individual actors are nice creative shorthand, but Assange is just one notable figure of a loose larger collective.

While the film gets down the look and feel of hacker gatherings, there’s little attention paid to the mores and rituals of that subculture, nor much hint given that Assange comes out of a durable tradition of phone phreaks and hackers that now goes back over 50 years. For someone like Assange’s associate-turned-Judas Daniel Domscheit-Berg—author of Inside WikiLeaks: My Time With Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website, on which The Fifth Estate is based—the lack of context isn’t too much of a problem, since Domscheit-Berg is merely a typically idealistic ingenue who subordinates himself to Assange.

But Assange remains a cipher throughout the film, and since the film is pretty shallow on the politics of WikiLeaks, that’s a major flaw. The filmmakers want to make him into a singular figure, one created by the psychodrama of a traumatic childhood. Unable to portray Assange as anything but sui generis, the film then seeks to explain him with a cringe-worthy psychologism: “Only someone so obsessed with his own secrets could come up with a way to reveal everyone else’s.”

It’s the sort of line you’d expect from a former West Wing screenwriter (Josh Singer), but it is completely off the mark. Assange isn’t especially secretive for someone with his chosen life (who wouldn’t be?). I have met a number of techie/hacker types similar to Assange; none were as ambitious or as risk-taking, but the egomania, hyperrationality, and manipulative strategizing are all too familiar traits. For you Advanced Dungeons & Dragons types, these sorts, including Assange, are Chaotic Good—they have a moral sense, but it really is all about them. By contrasting Assange with every other hacker in the film and in the world, the film misleads.

By all accounts, Assange lies a lot, but not because he has something to hide. He lies to achieve his ends, and sometimes he lies just for fun. (The film makes a big deal out of the revelation that he dyes his hair—which Assange disputes—rather than its having turned white during his rough childhood.) For Assange, words are all in the service of a cause; their “truth” is secondary. (I am sure he read the classic statement of this position, Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense,” at a young age.) In interviews, Assange talks more about justice than about truth. As Assange sees it, WikiLeaks is about a truth, not the truth: the truth of the oppressed, the powerless.

It is a truth to which many people, including me, are sympathetic. But unfortunately, people who consciously and chronically deceive others have a hard time selling even the most noble truth. Assange’s inability to keep people on his side is a tactical flaw rather than a psychological one; he thought he was more skilled at manipulating people than he actually was. As his mother Christine Assange said, he’s “gotten too smart for himself.” (She cultivated anti-authoritarianism in her son, has defended him to the hilt, and also should have figured in the movie.) Assange lied so much he seemed to forget that most people really don’t like it when they find out. This imperious attitude did him no favors in the court of opinion when as yet unresolved sexual assault allegations were made against Assange, which the film relegates to a footnote.

By missing that Assange’s lies were in the service of his cause and not merely a pathology, the film glosses over the most important part of Assange’s own story, which is that he revealed himself to be at once purist and mendacious, and that opinions of him devolved accordingly. You don’t get a sense of the feeling of sheer betrayal that the Guardian’s Nick Davies displays in the documentary Wikileaks: Secrets and Lies, as he believes Cablegate could have moved public opinion more than it did had Assange reined in his worst tendencies. And there’s little to suggest why Daniel Domscheit-Berg would have gotten involved with such a smirking narcissist in the first place.

Cumberbatch is all twitches and nerves as Assange, but he’s got the wrong nerves. A look at Assange at the Oslo Freedom Forum reveals a big gap between Cumberbatch’s jumpy intensity and Assange’s glassy-eyed detachment. Cumberbatch portrays a man blind to his own emotions; in actuality, Assange understands his emotions, but they are not those of most people. His flattened, smooth-talking affect can be tremendously seductive to those who are truly unskilled with emotion—like many hackers. As Cumberbatch portrays him, it’s difficult to imagine Assange holding much sway over techies, who tend to distrust overemotive sorts.

The film raises important issues and encourages independent thought, but it uses a very conventional Hollywood formula to do so. With a film like Condon’s Kinsey, there’s little harm done by using such conventions. But here it’s antithetical to the very ideas the film purports to treat. Still—nice job on the Linux screens, people.