“The Fifth Estate”
As a flag-waving United States citizen who also happens to be a journalist,
I watched this film with a great deal of ambivalence. On the one hand, I believe in a free press; it was one of the important democratic principles on which this country was founded. On the other hand, in this post-9/11 age of terrorist enemies, I do not wish to aid and abet the enemy by giving them access to secret information about our military operations, or our covert operatives overseas. And yet, that’s precisely the dilemma that was faced by the now-infamous Wikileaks. And the movie “The Fifth Estate” tells the story of how they came to that precipitous decision.
Australian-born Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) began as a self-appointed watchdog of the cyberspace age. He was clever enough with computers to not only establish the website called “Wikileaks,” but also insure enough security that not only could his sources not be traced; neither could he. He traveled all over the world, exposing corruption in Africa and in Europe , both in government and in business. The movie tells the story of his relationship with his protégé, Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl), and how completely dedicated they were to their shadowy task. They traveled a lot; they did their best to fly under the radar of any governmental observers; they worked all the time and had virtually no private life (one of the subplots involves Daniel’s difficulty in carving out enough time for a girlfriend; Julian seemed to have no interest in such things at all, and didn’t make it easy for his cohort to do so, either).
As Wikileaks began to develop an international whistleblower reputation, Julian began accepting some speaking engagements, where he continued to insist that there were “hundreds” of people associated with his company. In actuality, most of the time, there were only two: Julian and Daniel, frantically taking on different cyber-personas. Eventually, Daniel brought in a couple of friends, but Julian had a difficult time trusting them, and he invited an intern, unbeknownst to Daniel. Thus began the rift between the two men which became a complete estrangement by the time of the momentous opportunity presented by the American serviceman who somehow had access to all those top-secret military communiqués.
Daniel was adamant that the “Fourth Estate” press, such as “The New York Times,” should be involved in extracting some of the sensitive information, particularly any which would jeopardize the lives of innocent government employees. Julian was equally adamant that Wikileaks would not be edited by anyone, and that freedom of information was a more important principle than security safeguards, particularly decided by others. Their sharp disagreement was made more poignant by Julian beginning to believe some of the adulation he was now receiving from various quarters about his previous work, and his fierce argument that any difference of opinion was tantamount to personal betrayal. Yes, the super-private Julian was now hooked on denying the privacy of everyone else. Was megalomania a factor in his disingenuous negotiations with professional (read “Old School”) journalists? The rebel in Julian simply did not want to be tamed, and enjoyed being accountable to no one. And that’s precisely the attitude that caused so much consternation among American government officials (aptly played by Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci).
As of this writing, Julian, ironically indicted for sexual assault in Sweden , has taken refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London , where he has been granted diplomatic asylum since June of 2012. His founding of “Wikileaks” raises the ethical question of our decade: in our instant information age, when should a free press be muzzled for the common good? And who decides?
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Minister, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving , Texas