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October 24, 2013 - Rick Chatenever
Aside from strengthening the impression that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is one creepy guy, I'm still wondering what message you're supposed to take away from "The Fifth Estate."
This political thriller recounts events of recent years when the activist Internet-hacking website turned conventional journalism upside down with a series of revelations that toppled corrupt banks and ruthless dictators before making hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. government documents public, with far-reaching consequences.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays the prematurely white-haired Assange, and Oscar-winner Bill Condon directs what you expect to be another celluloid account of a courageous journalistic rebel bucking almighty governments and corporations to get the truth out at any cost.
Turns out, that's not the story.
Movies have long loved journalism. It's an amped-up, adrenalized profession, and the Hollywood version adds glamor and star power to the deadlines, drudgery and more mundane day-to-day realities of the actual job.
In 1976's Oscar-winning "All the President's Men," Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought down the president of the United States in a surreal scandal known as Watergate, helping entice a generation of us into the profession in the process.
Not all of us chose to be investigators, war correspondents or crusaders, but being a journalist was a personal source of both humility and pride. It just got more confusing after the nature of journalism changed out from under me, which may be why I never quite understood what Julian Assange was all about. I still don't.
"The Fifth Estate" recounts his rise through the eyes of Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl), a techno-wonk seduced by Assange's charisma who played a key role in getting WikiLeaks up and running in cyberspace before realizing that he had created a monster. The tale of the disillusioned, betrayed right-hand man in the digital age follows the same plot outline as recent screen portraits of cybertitans Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg.
Trained as a mathematician before he turned his attention to investigative journalism, Assange created WikiLeaks to recruit whistleblowers in cyberspace, while protecting their identity through ingenious digital safeguards. The goal was to get access to secret documents, publish them and inspire the public to right the wrongs they revealed.
Few would argue with the righteousness of bringing down greedy bank officials or African dictators. But things got considerably murkier when the revelations blew the covers of key CIA and State Department sources in trouble spots around the world, endangering their lives and crippling U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
The New York Times, London's The Guardian and Germany's Der Spiegel all simultaneously broke the WikiLeaks scoop, lending considerable credibility to Assange's efforts. But Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci show the consequences, co-staring as dedicated State Department officials utterly undone by WikiLeaks' reckless revelations.
Issues of freedom of the press are counterbalanced by Cumberbatch's portrait of Assange as a condescending, paranoid, pathological liar. He's not a journalist so much as a hacker, more comfortable with cold numbers and algorithms than with the human nuances, subtleties and responsibilities of the journalist's job - telling stories.
Director Condon creates Orwellian visions of computers in cavernous workspaces compiling endless data as a backdrop for Assange's crusade. What's missing are people; there's precious little humanity in sight. A free press is essential for a well-functioning democracy, but WikiLeaks is emblematic of an age of too much information, and too little wisdom to know what to do with it.
With Assange joining the recent screen portraits of Jobs and Zuckerberg, "The Fifth Estate" suggests each ruthlessly built his computer empire as an escape from actual human contact. They didn't play well with others. Their arrogant confidence may have been forged from insecure beginnings, but they became the captains of the ship carrying us all into dangerous uncharted waters as each remade our world in his own image.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org
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