In the early 21st Century, such a figure has emerged in Julian Assange and his groundbreaking, information-disseminating organization, WikiLeaks. Initiated in 2006 as a non-profit devoted to publishing previously secret, potentially incendiary information from anonymous sources — while offering the security of cutting-edge cryptography — WikiLeaks shattered the mold of 21st Century news-gathering, trumping mainstream media organizations and infuriating people in power.
Then, Assange became a news story unto himself. In 2010, as WikiLeaks led the release of the largest trove of secret, government files ever to see the light of day, Assange began to emerge simultaneously as a hero, a villain?, a journalist, or perhaps just a guarded man caught in a blinding global spotlight.
These are questions at the heart of DreamWorks Pictures’ “The Fifth Estate” – the first major feature film to explore the WikiLeaks phenomenon. Directed by Oscar-winner Bill Condon, the film stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Bruhl, Anthony Mackie, David Thewlis, Alicia Vikander, with Stanley Tucci and Laura Linney.
At this very moment, Assange and WikiLeaks remain at the white-hot center of raging debates over where our society will draw the lines between openness and security… and who should decide where to draw those lines. It’s a fire that is further fueled each time volatile information — the kind that can be both world-changing and dangerous — is revealed, as in the recent case of Edward Snowden.
So did WikiLeaks in 2010 strike a bold, winning blow for democracy and justice, allowing ordinary people kept in the dark to see the concealed actions of governments and corporations that skirt the edges of law? Or did it open the digital floodgates to reckless disclosures that can put people and nations in unpredictable peril?
Bill Condon probes them in a lightning-paced, kaleidoscopic portrait of our information-obsessed age, but does not pretend there can be any final answers at this juncture. Instead, he turns the story of WikiLeaks’ emergence from an anonymous hacker’s movement to a major world player into a gripping political thriller, a drama of friendship and betrayal and a thought-provoking snapshot of a world where electronic communication can be both liberator and threat.
Though the story pulses through a variety of screens – in tweets and texts and strings of code – Condon also unravels a starkly human story of fiery ideals colliding with thorny realities.
Like any unfolding story of invention and change, there are naturally several opposing versions of the rise of WikiLeaks. That is why Condon insists that “The Fifth Estate” is just one take on these contentious events – events that are viewed very differently even by those on the inside of them.
“This is a subject that almost no two people can agree on,” Condon notes. “So, respecting that, we wanted to make a dramatic movie that would spark real conversations about the issues raised by this part of WikiLeaks’ history. We didn’t set out to make an anti-WikiLeaks movie, or a pro-WikiLeaks movie, but rather, to look at the how and why of some of the extraordinary things WikiLeaks accomplished. We chose to present multiple points of view, to pose a lot of questions and then leave it up to you to come to your own conclusions.”
But “The Fifth Estate” is first and foremost a work of cinematic drama, not a strict historical record. Events have been compressed, there are composite characters among the supporting cast and the filmmakers have brought their own powers of analysis and imagination to all that is unknown about the elusive Assange and his private conversations to make for compelling storytelling.
“The film is not a documentary, and not designed to be one,” Condon states. “A number of good documentaries on WikiLeaks already exist and there will doubtless be more. We wanted to do something different – to explore some of the bigger issues WikiLeaks provoked in the world while also taking the audience on an emotional journey with a fascinating character of our times. ’The Fifth Estate’ represents just a slice of the WikiLeaks story, and one interpretation of it. There are certainly going to be other chapters in this story in the future and that’s part of what makes it so exciting.”
Opening soon across the Philippines, “The Fifth Estate” is a DreamWorks Picture distributed by Walt Disney Studios International.