Bill Condon’s feature film, The Fifth Estate, on WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange, focuses on the war of information in the digital era and asks whether the freedom to publish classified documents should supersede national security.
The docudrama, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Assange, comes on the heels of Alex Gibney’s documentary, We Steal Secrets, on the same subject. Both movies, though very different, show that in the digital age, information is still power.
In 2010, more than 90,000 classified US military documents were published on an obscure website by Australian computer hacker Julian Assange. Assange and his Wikileaks are the main characters in Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate.
"If we could find one moral man, one whistleblower, someone willing to expose those secrets, then men could topple the most powerful and most repressive of regimes,” the Assange character says in the film.
In the movie, Assange takes center stage long before his massive release of classified US military logs from the war in Afghanistan. The film portrays him as brilliant, egocentric, and unscrupulous, releasing information regardless of the human cost. His ideas put him at odds with his WikiLeaks collaborator Daniel Berg.
“There are things that are true on the Internet and there are things that aren’t true on the Internet," Condon said. "So, who is ultimately going to be able to help us distinguish between those two. That’s been the traditional role of journalism, The Fourth Estate, but it takes money. The Fifth Estate has emerged recently and represents the kind of citizen journalism that’s emerged in the age of the Internet.”
Although Condon says his story is balanced, he steers the audience against Assange and his simplistic treatment of the character led Assange to decry the film.
Many film critics agree that the film lacks the depth of Alex Gibney’s documentary We Steal Secrets, about Assange and Private Bradley Manning, who provided the documents.
“The deeper I got into it, the more I began to wonder why isn’t Manning a bigger part of this story," Gibney said, "so the focus began to shift and Bradley Manning I would say is just as important to this film as Julian Assange."
Gibney presents Manning’s torment over the information he stumbled on. He also presents Guardian reporter Nick Davies as an important participant in redacting sensitive information from the documents.
In a statement, reporter Mark Davis, who was with Assange during the collaboration with The Guardian, paints a different picture.
"Everyone in the room was hell bent on meeting the release date despite Assange’s reservations," Davis said. "It was Assange, entirely alone, who removed 10,000 names prior to the release."
Whatever his moral choices, both films agree Assange revolutionized the way information reaches us today.