"He's not a source, he's the head of a huge media empire, accountable to no one. And we put him there." The story of Julian Assange's relationship with the world at large, the media in general and the Guardian in particular was recently told in engrossing detail in Alex Gibney's documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks. That film (which provoked an equally detailed response from its subject) concluded that Assange was an information freedom fighter who became overwhelmed by his own ego, descending into recklessness, deviousness and worse.
Now, amid the usual denunciations from the white-haired one, comes Bill Condon's more overtly dramatic but less piercing biopic. Based in part upon Daniel Domscheit-Berg's account of his time as Assange's partner at "the world's most dangerous website", this visually flashy thriller retreads familiar ground, attempting to address the widest possible audience (Condon is clearly aiming for those who would have missed Gibney's film), constantly acknowledging its partisan sources, ultimately hedging its narrative bets.
After a title sequence that zips from the invention of writing, through the rise of the printing press to the dawn of the internet, we land in 2010, where the Guardian is holding out for accuracy, verification and redaction while others rush to publish the biggest information leak in history. From here, we flash back to the creation of WikiLeaks, tripping through its more celebrated revelations (tackling banks and politicians, exposing neo-Nazis), stopping occasionally to wonder about the balance between privacy and transparency ("you published their names and addresses; they have families, children… ") which is the key concern of West Wing graduate Josh Singer's script.
Mirroring this philosophical tension is the personal relationship between Assange and WikiLeaks spokesperson Daniel Berg, very well played by Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Brühl, who respectively come to embody the soul and conscience of their internet monster – one eager to charge in where angels fear to tread, the other increasingly concerned about the consequences of their actions.
There's a clear echo here of The Social Network, which similarly counterpointed the rise of electronic information with the breakdown of communication between the co-founders of an online revolution, one nice, one nasty. To solve the age-old problem of making people sitting at keyboards seem cinematic, Condon looks back beyond Hideo Nakata's Chatroom (a stage play adaptation that presented the internet as a series of physical spaces) to Iain Softley's Hackers, derided upon its release in the mid-90s but regularly copied ever since.
Following in Softley's footsteps, The Fifth Estate offers surreal vistas of electronic landscapes through which our heroes chase each other's tails; IP addresses made flesh, a thousand Julians smiling back at us through cyberspace. These sequences are fun, and no less fancifully cartoonish than the scenes in the Guardian offices that employ the usual screen cliches about the thrilling behaviour of news reporters; a stubbly David Thewlis channelling Paddy Considine in The Bourne Ultimatum as he storms theatrically into offices – always late, always cross – while Peter Capaldi frowns over folded arms as the concerned editor whose hand appears to have been glued to his chin. Meanwhile, cinematographer Tobias Schliessler chases the cast along glassy corridors, up stairs, down escalators, through doors, apparently terrified of ever coming to a halt.
After a while it becomes apparent that the visual fizz is hiding an essential emptiness, a hole where the film's meaty core should be. Condon has always been an exceptionally even-handed director (look at his refreshingly sober take on Kinsey), and despite Assange's assertion that this film will be "a massive propaganda attack" goes out of his way to be balanced, perhaps overly so. Indeed, with the sexual assault charges referred to only as a final footnote, the film's most barbed allegation is that Assange dyes his hair, a detail linked to a bizarre childhood that is unsuccessfully raked for a character-forming back story.
Condon even gives his adversarial central character the last word, dismissing the film from the confines of the Ecuadorian embassy, telling viewers that it this is only one version of a far more complex story, urging them to find out more for themselves. While this may be philosophically admirable, it doesn't make for great drama, and for all its simplifications and fictionalisations, The Fifth Estate feels strangely unfocused, uncertain of how to deal with its slippery enigma.
Cumberbatch is brilliant, getting the peculiar vocal and physical mannerisms of Assange just so, playing him as saint and sinner, perfectly capturing his shabby charisma. Yet the film never allows him to show his teeth, withholding not only judgment but also clear direction, creating an unsatisfactory vacuum at the heart of the piece, like a great big cinematic meringue. A shame, too, that the terrific Alicia Vikander gets lost in the mix, her role as Berg's confidante and lover being one of the script's sketchiest confections. In the end we're left with an enjoyable but rather empty ride; easy on the eye, kinetic in construction, but undone by indecision about its still unfolding history.
Documentary-maker Alex Gibney follows "Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God" with this detailed examination of Julian Assange and his information-sharing WikiLeaks operation.
PARK CITY – Prolific documentary-maker Alex Gibney delivers a gripping account of the wins and losses of hard-charging idealism on the frontlines of the information wars in We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks. Exhaustively researched and balanced in its view of the controversial key player, the film slips in ahead of DreamWorks’ dramatic take on the exploits of Julian Assange, The Fifth Estate, which is currently shooting, with Bill Condon directing Benedict Cumberbatch in the role.
Unfolding like an espionage thriller but with a methodical journalistic skill at organizing a mountain of facts, the film raises stimulating questions about transparency and freedom of information in a world in which governments and corporations have plenty to hide. It should be a magnet for op-ed coverage when it goes out mid-year theatrically and on digital platforms from Focus World.
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In addition to WikiLeaks founder Assange, Gibney devotes almost equal time to the fascinating figure of U.S. Army PFC Bradley Manning, allegedly the source of the largest volume of classified military documents leaked by Assange. It’s an awkward irony that one of WikiLeaks’ first major coups was a 2007 video showing a U.S. Apache helicopter mowing down unarmed civilians in Baghdad, released under the title Collateral Murder.
Manning in a sense was also collateral damage. A brilliant but lonely tech geek from Bible-Belt Oklahoma struggling with gender-identity issues, he enlisted to get a government-funded college education. But his homosexuality made him a target for sergeants determined to “beat the macho into him.”
Despite a supervisor’s recommendation that he not be deployed, Manning went to Iraq as an intelligence analyst. But his isolation and unhappiness led him to dig deeper into easily cracked classified military files. Distressed by what he found there, he reached out to WikiLeaks.
While Assange has repeatedly asserted that WikiLeaks' encryption systems ensure that its sources remain undetectable, the fact emerges that Manning took all the risks as well as the fall. He was betrayed by fellow hacktivist Adrian Lamo and held for almost a year at Quantico under conditions of extreme duress before being transferred to Fort Leavenworth, where he awaits trial in July. Hard evidence that the information spread by him has led to casualties or compromised missions remains elusive, according to Gibney’s film. Humiliation of the Pentagon appears to have been the bigger issue.
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Manning’s story is framed by a thorough, more or less chronological account of Assange’s rise and fall. The early sections dovetail with the dramatic depiction in Robert Connolly’s TV movie Underground, which premiered last fall in Toronto. Operating under the codename Mendax as part of a small hacker group in Melbourne, Australia, called “The International Subversives,” Assange became a dedicated proponent of information-sharing.
While no link has been verified, Gibney speculates in the opening of We Steal Secrets that Assange may have been behind the cheekily dubbed WANK (Worms Against Nuclear Killers), a virus that entered NASA’s network in the run-up to the 1989 launch of its plutonium-powered Jupiter probe, Galileo.
The doc then traces Assange’s success in exposing corrupt banking practices during Iceland’s economic collapse in 2009-10, which led to heated public protests and provided the budding whistleblower with a new national base and sympathetic allies. Other early WikiLeaks efforts focused on tax evasion in Swiss banking, government corruption in Kenya and toxic-waste dumping.
Assange hooked up with like-minded German technology activist Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who became his right-hand man. When the incoming load of U.S. military and diplomatic secrets started burning a hole in Assange’s pocket, WikiLeaks entered into a media alliance that included The Guardian and The New York Times to disseminate the information, much of which cast American intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan in a damning light.
However, when Manning’s actions were uncovered and WikiLeaks became an international hot potato, those broadsheets both distanced themselves from Assange – notably so in a critical New York Times Magazine profile.
During this time, allegations of sexual assault surfaced against Assange in Sweden, which the WikiLeaks founder and many of his supporters have tried to paint as a fabricated smear campaign, possibly orchestrated by the CIA. A British legal rep for Assange amusingly calls it “a surreal Swedish fairy tale only missing the trolls.” But the film implies with what seems like reasonable certitude that the conspiracy angle is bogus.
The unraveling of WikiLeaks was accelerated when major credit-card companies and PayPal bowed to pressure to stop processing donations to the organization, effectively setting up a financial blockade. The legal costs incurred in fighting Assange’s extradition order to Sweden ate up much of WikiLeaks' remaining funds. Its founder lived in semi-isolation in England before landing at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he remains holed up.
Gibney provides no shortage of support for Assange’s noble mission to keep governments and corporations in check. But the film also digs into the questionable ethics and hypocrisy of his methods, as well as the ego and paranoia that clashed with his idealism. Domscheit-Berg quit the organization when it became apparent that WikiLeaks had lost control of what information was being spread and how.
There’s a suggestion here that once Assange stepped out from undercover, his judgment was impaired by the rock-star seduction of the spotlight, and self-protection gradually trumped other concerns. The strength of the film is that it leaves the audience to decide whether he remains a figure of heroism or recklessness.
Given that We Steal Secrets is premiering only four months after Gibney’s equally dense account of pedophilia in the Church, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, it’s clear the filmmaker must have a virtual army of researchers working full-time. The volume of information here is considerable, but Gibney and editor Andy Grieve keep it pacey and accessible, incorporating smart graphics and animation and a suspenseful score by Will Bates. The film could stand to be tightened by 10 minutes or so, but this is a tremendously fascinating story told with probing insight and complexity.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres; Focus World)
Production companies: Jigsaw, Global Produce
Director-screenwriter: Alex Gibney
Producers: Marc Shmuger, Alex Gibney, Alexis Bloom
Executive producers: Blair Foster, Jemima Khan
Supervising producer: Sam Black
Director of photography: Maryse Alberti
Music: Will Bates
Editor: Andy Grieve
No rating, 127 minutes.