Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 14 min.
Our Advisories (0-10): Violence 3; Language 6; Sex-Nudity 2.
A truthful witness saves lives,
but one who utters lies is a betrayer.
Beware of your neighbors,
and put no trust in any of your kin;
for all your kin are supplanters,
and every neighbour goes around like a slanderer.
They all deceive their neighbors,
and no one speaks the truth;
they have taught their tongues to speak lies;
they commit iniquity and are too weary to repent.
There is a never-ending struggle between those who govern desiring to shroud their acts in secrecy and those who seek to expose their secrets. It is true in corporations as in governments, as we saw in such films as 1999’s The Insider, in this case a scientist working for a tobacco company exposing his companies lies about the harm that comes to those using their product. This struggle takes on enormous form in director Bill Condon’s film about the rise of Wikileaks. But as we see the good that its founder Julian Assange brings about by exposing the crimes of corrupt bank officials, a brutal dictator, and the dark secrets of US officials and soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, the question arises–does the power of holding so many government secrets go to his head? Josh Singer’s script is drawn from two books written by men who at first worked with digital genius Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) but then turned against him–Daniel Domscheit-Berg and Guardian journalist David Leigh, so we should be aware that this is not an unbiased view we are getting of this controversial figure.
The film begins with the Australian Julian and the German Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl) meeting at a hackers’ conference where Julian is one of many speakers. There are just a handful of Internet geeks in the room, but Julian is not discouraged, telling Daniel that even the small number of activist he wins over can make a difference in the world. Determined to expose the secrets and corruption of the rich and powerful, Julian is convinced that there are lots of good people working in government and corporations who will blow the whistle on their superiors if they can be protected by anonymity. His favorite Oscar Wilde quotation is “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth.” He convinces Daniel that his Wikileaks is the right platform for providing that mask.
This proves to be true when a conscience-troubled Swiss official at the giant Bank Julius Baer agrees to leak the information that will expose the corrupt practices of his colleagues. Thus WikiLeaks becomes an instant success around the world. There follows numerous exposures of the brutal practices of an African dictator posing as a democratically elected leader, as well as the nefarious dealings with the leaders of the pseudo religion Scientology. Julian is jubilant at being able to scoop the mainstream media, which he disdains as too cautious and timid. He even gains a follower when he is in Iceland, a female Member of Parliament who publicly supports his cause.
There is a toll to be paid for bucking the establishment. Fearful of being tracked down and killed, Julian keeps on the move. Daniel finds his life especially disrupted, his relationship with his lover Anke Domscheit (Alicia Vikander) being one of the casualties. He also begins to doubt his friend and his tactics. He first questions Julian’s veracity when he learns that, far from the throng of activists Julian had boasted of, there is only the two of them and a host of fake email addresses all manned by Julian. (This is shown pictorially by scenes of a huge office at which sit a multitude of Julian clones.) Then when Julian receives the files from ex-soldier Chelsea Manning and a huge cache of hundreds of thousands of US State Department cables about the U.S. war in Afghanistan, Daniel really becomes troubled, his boss wanting to release all of the documents without examining them.
They have picked up an associate in Guardian reporter Nick Davies (David Thewl) who is also worried about the consequences of releasing files that expose the identities of US moles in various governments and overseas organizations. Already under fire from Julian concerning a Wired article that gave Daniel too much credit for the rise of Wikileaks, the final break comes when Julian releases all of the files on his website, excusing himself for putting people in danger by saying there was too much material to go through.
This concern is shown in a specific case. Interspersed through the film are Laura Linney as Sarah Shaw and Stanely Tucci as James Boswell, a US Defense Department undersecretary and a National Security agent trying to deal with damage caused by Wikileaks. When Julian posts the thousands of diplomatic cables, she worries about an agent, also a personal friend, who is her source in the Libyan government, then still ruled by Kadafi. She manages to contact him as he is about to participate in a government meeting. Acting on her warning, he hurriedly leaves, rushing home to gather his family and a few possessions to flee toward Egypt. This is a tense sequence, ending with their arriving at the border where a grim-faced soldier examines his papers.
The film is better at presenting Daniel as a well-rounded character than Julian Assange. We understand Daniel’s motivations better, with the script only suggesting that Julian’s boyhood membership in a cult might be part of his obsession with exposing the secrets of others—but this is too sketchily shown in short flashbacks to be satisfying. The filmmakers, using the pounding music associated with action and thriller movies, seem more interested in making their film into a thriller than in the perceptive character study it could have been—there are several scenes in which we expect to see assassins charging in, with Julian barely escaping in Bourne-like fashion through the streets or over the rooftops
. The film does raise the issue of the conflicting values of exposing the lies and corruption of the powerful versus protecting human lives. This we see in the infamous video in which American technicians comment on the deaths of a group of suspected terrorists being machine-gunned from the air. The victims had actually consisted of foreign journalists and their guides. On the other side is the already mentioned close escape of the Libyan working with Americans.
At the end of the film Julian, now living in the Ecuadorian London Embassy to escape a Swedish warrant for sexual abuse (the film only mentions this sordid but important detail!), speaks directly to the audience, challenging us to become the Fifth Estate. Although flawed as a biographical work, director Bill Condon’s film raises plenty of important issues. I have read that Alex Gibney’s documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, does a better job at exploring Wikileaks and the issues it raises, but for those of us who have not seen it—which includes most of the public—this film will have to do for the time being. Wikileaks is not going away, nor the troubling issues of responsibility and the need for truth versus government secrecy. Although he was speaking of belief in himself and his own mission of salvation, the prophet from Nazareth’s words apply here also, “You shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
The full review with a set of questions for reflection or discussion will appear in the November issue of Visual Parables, which will be available toward the end of October. If you are a subscriber and plan to discuss this film with a group, contact the editor, and he can send you the full review.