‘The Fifth Estate’

Julian Assange, Future Imperfect

So much ink has been spilt and pixels rendered to the name of Julian Assange. I must say that in most part, I’ve felt like a supporter more than somebody calling for his head; but he is a disturbing man in many respects, and he seems to have dreadful personal manners. He might even have Aspergers or Borderline Personality Disordered because in spite of his high-falutin’ stated position and ideals he seems to create dramas in his wake that most normal, ordinary, mere-mortal-citizens would likely avoid. In many ways he’s a gatecrasher who has arrived loudly but with a very strange party trick.

There have already been two movies made on the subject of Julian Assange. The other film covered the strangeness of his upbringing and circumstances. This one takes a hatchet to the self-mythologising and the self-agrandisement we’ve seen from him. At his best, Julian Assange provides us with an interesting standard around which the outsiders can rally against power. At his worst he seems to be an egomaniac with very little care for the lives he might be destroying. It’s not surprising that the man has ended up fictionalised and immortalised on film so quickly.

What’s Good About It

The film makes a very good way towards unpacking the abstract concepts it must discuss in order to address the concerns of Julian Assange, and unpack the intricacies of the argument so that even a lay person can come at the story. The film goes to great lengths to contextualise the events so the cause and effect of these rather abstract choices do get played out for the audience.

The cast is quite impressive. It boasts Benedict Cumberbatch doing his best Australian accent while David Bruhl plays a nervously charged Daniel Domscheit-Berg. The smaller roles have David Thewlis, Anthony Mackie, Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci rounding out the cast and while David Thewlis plays a real person the others play fictional members of the US government to great effect. It could’ve been very cheesy; but the fact that you don’t feel it’s cheesy is a great bonus in a film like this where you have to wade through all the risks of telling “A True Story Loosely Based On Fact”.

What’s Bad About It

I’m not a big fan of the shaky camera thing. The subject matter of the film is subtle enough without the distractions of a jerky camera hoping to add style to a rather grim looking film. Parts of the script are really forced and if they didn’t have such good actors, I don’t know if it would’ve worked. I don’t normally sit there trying to picture the way it would’ve been written, but for some reason this film kept throwing screenplay pages into my mind as I was watching. Not a good sign if you ask me.

I’m also unsure about the metaphorical office landscape as a device. It  seems very contrived and never gets out of it being this adjunct visual device that commentates on the action. The abstraction inherent in the activity undertaken by Assange with Wikileaks denies easy visualisation. In fact there are two gags in the film about how Julian Assange and graphic design don’t mix.

You sort of get the feeling that somebody wanted to get a free moralising boot in to a part of Assange’s story without knowing where to put it. I’m definitely not convinced the film hits any mark near where Julian Assange lives and dreams. And that being the case, the film is largely in danger of being a fantastical imagination of the life of Julian Assange that has very little reference to the true problematic that drives the man. The man, whatever his strengths and faults, is complicated and convoluted. The film tries to show that picture but actually misses which parts of this man’s complications are interesting.

What’s Interesting About It

Perhaps the most venal aspects of the film are the most gossip-tinged and interesting. We have no idea who Domscheit-Berg (“dumb-shit berk” sprang to mind) might ave been prior to Wikileaks. What kind of techno-geek wants a revolution based on transparency and truth so much that he lets a sexy girl walk out on him? It’s a strange terrain. This Domscheit-Berg gets so involved with the Assange vision, he inadvertently cracks open what the film calls the Fifth Estate. Oddly enough, the real life Assange is quite contemptuous of other entities in this Fifth Estate.

Assange’s put down in this film is great. “All these kids are excited reading ‘Neuromancer’ and playing ‘Call of Cthulhu’,” he says so dismissively. It’s true, I’m exactly one of those he would accuse of being complacent about the world; for indeed, I did read “Neuromancer’ with much excitement way back when and also played ‘Call of Cthulhu’ with my mates. And no, I didn’t change the world one iota – it still sucks.

Assange of course famously denounced Bloggers for being only interested in impressing their friends and are not really doing what we are supposed to do, which is read the wires he’s leaking at Wikileaks and getting angry and agitating. All of this is true too.

All the same, I’m inclined to give the man moral support even if he would think I was not helping one bit. I’m just not willing to head down to the barricades with my Guy Fawkes mask on, on his say so. Excuse me sir, but I do think for myself.

Hypocrisy On A (short) Stick

The most poignant observation the film does make is that only a man so obsessed with his own secrets as Julian Assange could bring the world to the brink through exposed secrets. Indeed, this quality of having two sides to the same problematic in his head leads us to wonder out loud just how much self-control this man possesses. One is – okay, I am – inclined to think that part of Julian Assange’s problem is that he’s so used to not having the rules of society apply to him in society, he keeps living in a thought bubble where he thinks laws and regulations don’t apply to him either. He’s easy on himself – which is why he ends up in very strange circumstances involving sex and Sweden and secrets and strange denials.

The film goes a great way to intimate that the sexual encounter he had in Sweden is somehow laden with this kind of permissiveness that he applies to himself. I’m not certain it’s so conclusive, but there are days where I do think maybe it’s all a beat up and Julian Assange really ought to face the music in Sweden. Then I think of Edward Snowden and think that maybe the Ecuadorean embassy is exactly where he needs to hide. Its absurd. It takes an incredibly absurd person to find himself in such circumstances. And none of this Swedish Sex Crime bit really made it into the film.

An Aside On His Bad Manners

Look, I’ve never met the bloke. I know hackers in Australia that came across Mendax in their time back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Yes, he was a ‘name’ in the hacking community. It’s interesting how one of the things he ‘inspires’ in people is this complaint about his manners. While Geoffrey Robertson was handling his extradition case in the UK, Assange stayed with the Robertsons. Mrs Robertson, Kathy Lette was later on air saying that Julian Assange might be somebody doing something incredibly important, but he was also the person with the worst manners of anybody she had met. And this is coming from Miss Puberty Blues, the Proto-Bogan surfer chick. Of all the things she could have said about the guy, this was it.

Having watched several videos of him giving talks about what journalists are doing wrong, I do get the impression that maybe he’s a pretty far gone Asperger’s case on the loose. I’m not convinced he’s NPD as the film portrays him.  Still, is this even all that interesting next to the actual damage he has inflicted on Governments through advocacy for truth and transparency? Somehow I think the film chooses to miss the point so that it doesn’t have to address the deeper, bigger, more vexing philosophical issue to do with truth and transparency. It opts to tell how two men in partnership fall out.


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Filed under Cinema, Film, General, Movies

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