The Fifth Estate. 2013. Bill Condon, director. United States.
In July of 2007, a series of attacks took place from the skies of Baghdad. In the first, fire was directed at a group of a dozen or so men. Among them were two war correspondents working for Reuters. Eight men were killed including one of the correspondents. In the immediately following second strike, fire was directed at the wounded. Clearly wounded, and posing no risk, the second correspondent was killed by helicopter fire as he was being helped into a van. Two further men were killed, two children within the van were wounded, and their father was killed. A spokesperson at the time stated that coalition forces had been engaged in combat against a hostile entity. That interpretation was accepted. In April of 2010, however, WikiLeaks released footage of these strikes. A different story – the truth – was told.
The Fifth Estate attempts to tell the story of Julian Assange. Assange quotes Oscar Wilde and his observation that “man is least himself when he talks in his own voice [but] give him a mask and he will tell you the truth”. WikiLeaks, founded by Assange, is predicated on its ability to provide a person his or her mask; a mask behind which, it is presumed, that person will truthfully speak.
The Fifth Estate tells its story from the perspective of persons who have previously, and publicly, fallen-out with Assange. Not a hit-job per se, the extent to which The Fifth Estate has sought to complement these perspectives – with input from Assange or from his collaborators – is not apparent. In fact, by presenting Assange as disparaging to works which seek to depict him, The Fifth Estate cynically attempts to bolster its own credibility by anticipating the response of Assange and undermining it.
Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Assange, notes approaching his character differently than director Bill Condon had: “On a lot of the stage direction, we collided because Bill did seem to be setting [Assange] up as this antisocial megalomaniac”. Though The Fifth Estate presents Assange as reckless and as deceptive, neither quality inhibits Condon or Cumberbatch from admiring aspects of Assange or from acknowledging his impact upon the world of journalism. The merit of WikiLeaks, after all, can stand independent of the character of its founder.
Granting that the merit of WikiLeaks can stand independent of the character of its founder, it is not apparent to me that it needs to. The charges leveled against Assange in The Fifth Estate – of recklessness and of deception – are unwarranted.
As to recklessness, the dispute – which arises in The Fifth Estate between Assange and Domscheit-Berg – surrounds the release of documents which had not been redacted. In its Talking Points to The Fifth Estate, WikiLeaks identifies that the character Domscheit-Berg is given a much larger role than he had in real life. That does not matter. What matters is whether Assange, through WikiLeaks, placed persons in risk.
The Fifth Estate, in the post-script of the film, tells that some two thousand confidential sources have been exposed as a result of the release of unredacted cables. A question: Why manufacture a Libyan character forced to flee his homeland when, if the accusations against WikiLeaks are true, there would have been some two thousand real persons to draw upon? An answer: There are not two thousand once-endangered persons to draw upon. In a 60 Minutes interview, Assange stated: “There is no evidence or any credible allegation or even any allegation from an official body that we have caused any individual at any time to come to harm”. Even the United States government, in their trial of Private Manning (who leaked the relevant materials to WikiLeaks), did not identify one single person who had come to harm as a result of that which Manning had leaked and which Assange had published.
Several human rights organizations did express apprehension about the WikiLeaks release of the Afghan war logs in their unredacted form. In 2010, however, Robert Burns of the Associated Press could write: “So far there is no evidence that any Afghans named in the leaked documents – named as defectors or informants from the Taliban insurgency – have been harmed in retaliation.” Another truth is that the redaction advice of the United State government was sought by WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks requested that government officials go through the leaked documents so as to ensure that no innocent people could be placed in risk. This request was rebuffed. Further, some fifteen thousand of the original ninety thousand documents were held back by WikiLeaks because of the harm minimization process in place. One would not know any of this from The Fifth Estate. One would also not know, from The Fifth Estate, that there have been no issues with the harm minimization process as it has been applied to subsequent WikiLeaks releases (such as the Iraq war logs).
Even if it were once possible to argue that persons had been placed in risk by WikiLeaks, Glenn Greenwald argues that, in regards to Cablegate – the release of several hundred thousand unredacted diplomatic cables – any potential harm owes more to the recklessness of David Leigh and Daniel Domscheit-Berg than it does to Assange (Leigh and Domscheit-Berg are the two authors upon whom The Fifth Estate has most relied). Christian Stöcker of Der Spiegel, here, outlines how the publication of these diplomatic cables occurred but the substance of the charge made by Greenwald is this: the hand of Assange had been forced by events beyond his control and, at that point, the unredacted release of all such cables was the most reasonable course of action.
The interest The Fifth Estate takes in the moral character of Assange is disappointing. Besides the charges of film not being true, such charges distract from, Greenwald writes, the “actual, deliberate acts of wanton slaughter” being committed by persons in service of the United States. Kill-lists, assassination squads, complicity in the torturing of others, have all been uncovered. Among the cables of Cablegate was one providing evidence of American troops executing ten Iraqi civilians (one of whom was a woman in her seventies and another of whom was an infant of five months).
Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, stated in a 27 March 2006 communique that he had
received various reports indicating that at least 10 persons, namely Mr. Faiz Hratt Khalaf, (aged 28), his wife Sumay’ya Abdul Razzaq Khuther (aged 24), their three children Hawra’a (aged 5) Aisha (aged 3) and Husam (5 months old), Faiz’s mother Ms. Turkiya Majeed Ali (aged 74), Faiz’s sister (name unknown), Faiz’s nieces Asma’a Yousif Ma’arouf (aged 5 years old), and Usama Yousif Ma’arouf (aged 3 years), and a visiting relative Ms. Iqtisad Hameed Mehdi (aged 23) were killed during the raid.
According to the information received, American troops approached Mr. Faiz’s home in the early hours of 15 March 2006. It would appear that when the MNF approached the house, shots were fired from it and a confrontation ensued for some 25 minutes. The MNF troops entered the house, handcuffed all residents and executed all of them. After the initial MNF intervention, a US air raid ensued that destroyed the house.
Iraqi TV stations broadcast from the scene and showed bodies of the victims (i.e. five children and four women) in the morgue of Tikrit. Autopsies carries out at the Tikrit Hospital’s morgue revealed that all corpses were shot in the head and handcuffed.
For those inclined to doubt the veracity of this report, reports of the treatment of persons within Abu Ghraib might have experienced similar disbelief. The Prime Minister of Iraq refused to accept the condition that, were US troops to remain in Iraq, they would be immune from criminal prosecution. There is a reason behind such a refusal. WikiLeaks is revealing significant abuses and yet, instead, what some want to discuss is the moral character of the one mediating such truths to the public. For The Fifth Estate to find the supposed eccentricities or inter-personal conflicts of Assange more interesting, or for them to peddle oft-repeated and easily refuted charges, is more than tragic. A really important story could have been told.
To tyrants, truth-telling is treasonous. Because The Fifth Estate did not deign the voice of Assange interesting enough to include in its depiction of him, I conclude with his ignored voice:
Every time we witness an injustice and do not act, we train our character to be passive in its presence. Eventually we lose all ability to defend ourselves and those we love. If we have brains, or courage, we are blessed and called not to frit these qualities away – not to stand agape at the ideas of others, win pissing contests, improve the efficiencies of the neo-corporate state, or immerse ourselves in obscuranta – but rather to prove the vigor of our talents against the strongest opponents of love we can find.
The Fifth Estate has an MPAA rating of R for “language and some violence”.