The train of history is an unpredictable one. The less well-oiled gears may be wonky. The driver may be asleep or dosing off. How one influences that train is a matter of some conjecture. Great figures of history have attempted to control their role in it. The error often lies in assuming that history is made at the time, when it is actually made after the time. As a keen Winston Churchill quipped about the architect of appeasement Neville Chamberlain, history would treat him poorly for the simple reason that he would write it.
Julian Assange might have good reason to feel a similar disposition. History is being rewritten through publication, the power of information as it winds its way across the globe from hidden and powerful centres. WikiLeaks has altered the train of history by the finely attuned and devastating art of leaking. To tinker with an expression from Rousseau, the truth might be born free, though everywhere it seems to be in chains. Unleash, then, the leaker of all times.
Taking such a role to celluloid was bound to be problematic. Assange provides rich material. He has been labelled by mediocre psychology wonks as narcissistic and megalomaniacal. Recently, the New York Times decided to run a piece suggesting that he was a tyrant. All of these assertions promise a treasure trove of filmic possibilities, though none of them comes close to capturing the elusive Assange who hovers somewhere in the ether of historical cut and thrust. Assange, in truth, is beyond capture, the meaning ever elusive even in the Ecuadorean embassy in London.
Bill Conden’s The Fifth Estate is an attempt to wrest the wheel from Assange, to take the train on another track. It is by no means the first. Robert Conolly’s Underground: The Julian Assange Story, premiered at the Toronto Film Festival 2012. Conden plays with the record, as one would expect. Fictional license has been amply deployed in depicting the life of Assange himself.
Scripts do get murdered in the editing room. By the time the director goes to work on it, he may find himself dealing with a distinctly different body altogether. And so, it should come as little surprise that The Fifth Estate would metamorphose in time into its current, Benedict Cumberbatch dominated form. Disputes were bound to arise, and WikiLeaks has, true to form, leaked a version of the original script – one of the more “mature” ones.
Why then, the fuss? Surely directional license is part of the stock and trade of film making. Unfortunately, The Fifth Estate purports to be more than it is. It dips into history, but proceeds to adjust salient events. Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who formerly worked with Assange and whose book the script draws extensively from, appears as a fundamental figure in the events of 2010. Further to that, Nick Davies of The Guardian was also given a consulting contract. Needless to say, WikiLeaks played no role in the project, a striking omission that has typified reactions to the publishing organisation and its founder. Everyone wants a bit of the Assange they, in true postmodern isolation, want.
Even Cumberbatch sniffed an agenda at work here to depict Assange as a “cartoon baddie”. “I think I may get my head bitten off by Disney for saying so, but everyone agreed with that.” Furthermore, Condon had given him direction to develop Assange’s “antisocial megalomaniac” tendencies.
As the memorandum attacked to the leaked script states, “He [Domscheit-Berg] last saw Julian Assange in Iceland in February 2010, and was not significantly involved in WikiLeaks after this point. All of the key releases of the US government documents in 2010 happened after this point.” Importantly, Domscheit-Berg was not involved with the Collateral Murder film. As the memo goes on to say, “He was not even in the same country as the Collateral Murder team.” Little surprise, given his consultative role behind the film, that Domscheit-Berg finds himself centre stage with Assange.
There are other matters that are troubling about the film, and these are not merely the quibbles of historical tinkering of character adjustments. The Fifth Estate continues to perpetuate the myth that WikiLeaks, though its activities, has actually compromised the safety of those it has discussed. Some 2000 informants are alleged to have been compromised by the release of the material. It continues with that tired accusation that Assange was “charged” with rape when in fact he had been detained in the United Kingdom for three years without charge, the grounds of which were crucial in him being granted political asylum.
Assange’s efforts to take control of that train of history may not be successful, though he has made a masterful effort at doing so. Each step of the way, the creative and fanciful blur with the conspiratorial and brilliant. What is being shaped is a remarkable narrative, though The Fifth Estate is distinctly threadbare in that regard. The authentic legacy is to be found through the workings of Assange himself, who has made it clear that transparency should be in proportion to power. The train continues to chuff away with potent promise.