All the world’s a stage: The Fifth Estate

Bernadette Anvia scrutinises the ethics behind releasing a Hollywood biopic about a wanted man

It’s a fascination with all things related to Benedict Cumberbatch that initially prompts me into searching for the script of the soon-to-be released movie, The Fifth Estate. But it’s a respect for the truth-seeking motives espoused by Julian Assange and the Wikileaks organization that eventually finds me devoting a good part of my Friday night reading through the film script that has been published on the Wikileaks’ website with an accompanying memo in which the movie is pronounced to be “irresponsible, counterproductive and harmful.”

Directed by Bill Condon and starring Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock, Star Trek) and Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey), The Fifth Estate is a Hollywood production apparently based on the rise of Julian Assange and the Wikileaks party. Whilst the movie is yet to be released in mainstream cinemas, it has amassed global attention after Benedict Cumberbatch revealed at the official premiere of the film at the Toronto International Film Festival that Julian Assange had even gone so far as to contact him via email in an attempt to have him reconsider his acceptance of the role.

 

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The Fifth Estate is not the first, nor will it be the last, of its kind. It serves as an example and stands as a testament to the strong relationship between films and politics. Undoubtedly, the political power of film productions – particularly that of Hollywood – lies in their tendency to be seen as benevolent forces, despite the fact that some studios may have been inspired by questionable political motives and agendas.

Often, the actors chosen to play these political figures also assume a powerful political standing in society, with their mass-popularity and fan-base serving to aid them in being recognized as political oracles by virtue of association with a particular acting role. Standing outside of the commonly delineated boundaries associated with the governments, parliaments, the senate and other such symbolic institutions in which politicians reside, actors often possess a charismatic connection to their audiences which can potentially be stronger than anything a democratically elected leader can hope to attain.

In portraying Julian Assange, Benedict Cumberbatch has inevitably assumed, whether desired or not, this very same figure of a political commentator within society.  His interviews have gone from being comprised of questions on acting roles, to now being asked about his thoughts on Assange, the role of Wikileaks, how the internet can be utilized, the legality and extent of government surveillance, and the sentencing of Chelsea Manning- regardless of whether or not Cumberbatch really has the authority to speak on these matters.

In one of his most recent interviews, Cumberbatch admitted that he did have initial doubts about playing the film, particularly because he had to consider “the moral question of playing someone who’s real situation is playing out daily in the newspaper.”  He then went on to say in regards to the exchange of emails between Assange and himself: “it’s not a documentary, it’s not a piece of evidence… it’s a dramatization and while we’re not hiding behind that, it’s nothing that can damage him and also it can be judged as a film, which is what it is- it is a film… and within that there are incredibly complex issues that I think we give pretty fair and even airing to. He [Assange] is never gonna come out and support this film, you know, his idealism is very pure and the sacrifice… to see that through is very clear.”

But for Australian investigative journalist John Pilger, who is a key commentator and supporter of Julian Assange, Cumberbatch’s interview comments reveal a clear underestimation of the power of film. Mr Pilger tells me that, “whether or not the film is malicious, it is a Hollywood appropriation of someone’s life and achievements based largely on axe-grinding informants.” He then went on to say “it is based on the book by David Leigh and Luke Harding, which was exploitative scuttlebutt, sprinkled with gratuitous abuse and reflecting a personal hostility – justified not by Julian’s behaviour but by theirs, especially Leigh.”

Mainstream media productions like this that are proliferated to a largely uncritical society possess huge political significance and it would be wrong to downplay the The Fifth Estate as “just a film.” This idea was also reiterated in the Wikileaks’ memo accompanying the script, in which was stated: “there are very high stakes involved in how Wikileaks is perceived. This film does not occur in a historical vacuum, but appears in the context of ongoing efforts to bring a criminal prosecution against Wikileaks and Julian Assange for exposing the activities of the Pentagon and the US State Department. The film also occurs in the context of Pvt. Manning’s upcoming appeal and request for a presidential pardon.”

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Admittedly, during my reading, I find that the script of The Fifth Estate reads like a jerky and choppy thriller, moving quickly between different time periods with an intensity that leaves one feeling slightly disorientated.  As the script jumps from scene to scene, I cannot help but feel that the movie does not provide enough time between scenes for the complexity of the political dangers faced by the members of Wikileaks to sink in.

What I find even more problematic during the reading is the fact that the script has interspersed throughout various flashbacks by the character of Assange, included as a means of providing the audience with an insight into the early years of development that has shaped the man that Benedict Cumberbatch is seeking to bring to life on screen. Unfortunately however, one cannot help but doubt the validity of the scenes in consideration of the fact that the man that the producers are trying to bring to life on screen has firmly refused any affiliation with the film off screen.

A scene that takes place early on in the film serves as a case in point. The scene begins with Assange (Cumberbatch) and Domscheit-Berg (played by Daniel Bruhl) standing in front of the Reichstag Glass Dome in Berlin. What begins as a profound thought on the political symbolism of the building itself – “A government destroyed by tyranny then rebuilt with a dome of glass so the whole world could look in… there’s an ideal to aspire to” – quickly turns into a childhood flashback by Assange.

The script reads: “[ASSANGE] when I was 13, my mother started dating a guy who was part of a nasty Australian cult. The Family. They believed in blue auras and cleansing souls… large network of influence… extending to the highest levels of government… my mum knew the guy was a wanker, but by the time she came to her senses they’d had a kid together…” The presence of approaching guards serves to abruptly put an end to the musings of the Wikileaks mastermind, and truth be told, it seems to be a purposefully abrupt end to a totally incongruous statement that doesn’t quite fit in with where the characters are, and seems to be thrown in as merely a convenient place to include something about the childhood days of Assange.

The memo accompanying the script takes issue with this, and more. It makes clear, in no uncertain terms, that the script (and therefore the movie) can lay no claim to a just representation of Assange and Wikileaks, attributable to the fact that Assange himself has refused to be affiliated to the film in any way.

To Wikileaks, the script presents only “one side of the story”, and the accompanying memo is their attempt to provide the other. The memo emphasizes the fact that Wikileaks did not harm any person with their release of information, nor has it ever been their intention to do so. The memo also refutes suggestions made in the script that Assange was once part of a cult. It even takes the time to stress that Assange “does not dye or bleach his hair white.”

 

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The Fifth Estate will soon be released into a world that is still not sure where privacy on the Internet ends and where surveillance and the cover-up of information for our own protection starts. As I finally finish reading the rather long script of The Fifth Estate, I cannot help but be struck by the irony of signing into Facebook and having a movie poster informing me that “YOU are the Fifth Estate” – after all, Facebook was the very same social media site through which the NSA spied on users.

It may very well be the role of the people, as the fifth estate, to keep large entities accountable and the truth to remain as the ultimate goal to be attained, but what the truth is, and who will seek to attain it, remains to be seen.

It isn’t easy to forget that somewhere in the Ecuadorian embassy in London sits Julian Assange, still waiting for some resolution to his situation, while the rest of the world watches a Hollywood interpretation of his struggles from the comfort of the cinema.

Honi Soit
Honi Soit is the largest and oldest weekly student newspaper in Australia. Our articles, like this one, are made possible by our dedicated student reporters and contributors.
Honi Soit

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