A gritty, staccato newsreel replete with many of history's momentous events opens The Fifth Estate, portending the gravity of what's to come. This précis also offers the transition from the "fourth estate" (the media) to the film's title, The Fifth Estate, where a handful of zealots can launch an information insurgency capable of toppling ruling institutions by revealing their secrets and cabals.
Gone are the good old days of the three estates, which date back to the Middle Ages, when church, nobility and commoners controlled the world. The fact that the fifth estate can leverage so much power through an able hacker, a decent server and some memory sticks (or even the Lady Gaga CD used by Private Chelsea Manning to burn some of her 700,000 documents) is a chilling thought. The disruptive fifth estate is the subject of this film about Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks and the purveyor of Manning's information, who gained the world's stage and the enmity of governments and media.
Assange's method derives from Oscar Wilde, who said, "Give [a man] ... a mask, and he will tell you the truth." As an accomplished hacker, practiced in this art since a youth, Assange learned to bury the identity of his sources so well that he gained a reputation for protecting them while blowing the lid off death squads, greedy banks, nuclear spills and governments that permitted such indecencies. It was years of his progressive taking down of miscreants that set the stage for the greatest leak in history, when in 2011 he released, without any redaction, all the U.S. government files that Manning provided him. Manning recently was sentenced to 35 years of military prison, escaping a death penalty, and Assange remains in asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
Bill Condon (who directed Dreamgirls and two vampire Twilight Saga releases) fashions a suspense film with Assange at the center (Benedict Cumberbatch, whose credits include Star Trek, War Horse and The Hobbit) and Daniel Berg at his side (Daniel Bruehl, whom we recognize for his roles in Inglourious Basterds and The Bourne Ultimatum), with state department officials (Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci) among their arch enemies. In other words, brace yourself for intensity.
The high drama of the film too often distracted from the plot. Did we really need figurative fires, shattered screens and desks, boy-girl tensions, and yet another battle of keyboards that was done so well a long time ago by Harrison Ford in a Tom Clancy film? The story is dense and takes careful telling. But it is monumental story that could stand on its own.
There is an arc, it appears, to the career of a leaker, a fifth estate revolutionary. Youthful idealism, fueled by a troubled and oppressed childhood, initially may have driven Assange, but as purpose and success grow so does his megalomania. Assange's war on the United States had him willing to reveal identities of operatives around the world, exposing them and their families to murder, the United States and its allies to terrorism, and career-ending consequences for patriots after a lifetime of service. The man and his mission became inseparable. His accomplices turn against him. It is increasingly his own narcissism that sustains him.
Assange is not a likable person. Does that matter? What do we, as witnesses to this information war, need to take a side? What is the moral ground a leader must occupy that helps to put character in the background while quest takes the foreground? Is it not honesty? Integrity? Respect for the lives of others? Here is where my sensibilities abandoned Assange, as it did his closest allies. He lied, he manipulated, and he bathed in the glory.
Everyone lied, and Assange was really good at revealing their lies. But he lied too. We judge a person's actions not only by what he does but also how he goes about it. Will Assange be exonerated in the court of public opinion for taking whatever actions he thought he needed to win his war? Assange thinks we will conclude he is a hero. But he thinks too much of himself.
Dr. Sederer's new book for families who have a member with a mental illness, The Family Guide to Mental Health Care (Foreword by Glenn Close), published by WW Norton, is now available.
The opinions expressed here are solely mine as a psychiatrist and public health advocate. I receive no support from any pharmaceutical or device company.