In 2010, The Guardian, The New York Times and Le Spegel simultaneously released a story on the Afghan war logs and credited their source as Wikileaks, a website responsible for releasing vital information provided by unnamed sources. The website is founded by the eccentric activist Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and a handful of volunteers, including his partner Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl), a computer hacker from Berlin. The story was devoted 14 pages in The Guardian, 12 in the Times, and major coverage by Le Spiegel, and became a major sensation because it entailed the biggest leakage of US military documents in American history. The story catapulted Wikileaks as a legitimate news source when it released the logs without edits but also called to question the ethics behind the move as it imperiled the lives of hundreds American sources in war zones in Afghanistan.
Even before the movie was made, the subject of Wikileaks was already a very controversial one because on the one hand, the site aims to give the public access to free information about corruption and oppression in the world. It was founded to bring down tyranny using information as a tool. However, on the other hand, its refusal to edit information and publish the leaked documents as is including data like addresses and contact numbers of the officials involved in the controversy has been called to question for endangering the individuals and subjecting them to public outrage.
As a former journalist, the dilemmas in the movie proved to be truly engaging. Weighing Wikileaks’ actions against the Journalism Code or the Canons of Journalism was truly baffling. Professional journalists seek vital information and sources of news but as members of the fourth estate, they also serve as gatekeepers of this information, and as such bear the responsibility of crafting the stories that hold merit to the public without endangering the sources of their information or those who may be affected by it. Wikileaks practices journalism to a certain extent — in protecting its sources, and in verifying the validity of the documents that they release on the website. But the handling of the information between the major news networks and the website differs by a wide margin. While The Guardian, Le Spiegel and Times, redacted sensitive information such as the names of government informants in war torn areas, Wikileaks pushed ahead and released over 250,000 war logs to prove that it had no bias and stayed true to its original principles. This resulted in a major catastrophe within the US military and their allies when the information was fully released.
The movie was based on the book written by Daniel Domscheit-Berg after his falling out with Assange over the handling of the Afghan logs and it was only natural for Assange to debunk Berg’s claims. While the movie focused on the dynamics between the two characters (Cumberbatch was spectacular as the weird, often obsessive activist Assange), I was more fascinated in the evolution of the site from breaking small stories to taking down billion dollar financial institutions and an entire dictatorship. I was inspired by what difference conviction and determination can make against those who abuse their power. At the end of the day, it was a matter of trust. Berg trusted in Assange’s ideals and up to a certain point agreed wholeheartedly with what he stood for when no one else believed in him. Its wonderful to see passion like these two shared with their cause, especially in a world of people who couldn’t care less about issues that do not impact them directly. No matter how Assange was depicted in the film, I believe that he was truly a visionary. Not many people could accomplish what he did with the limited resources that he had. And he made it happen. No many people have this gift.
While the relationship of Assange and Berg did not exactly end amicably, I was not really surprised because when two people care about their cause as much as these two, there is bound to be conflict. Still, it gave me a new respect for these two. Imagine, building Wikileaks with just two people, processing all of the information and making a difference in the world by building a network of sources whose identities are protected by layers and layers of code. I admire the principles of Wikileaks even if I don’t totally condone the manner in which they release the information.
All in all, I think The Fifth Estate is a great movie to open society’s eyes to the power of information, and the best lesson in media ethics as one could probably get. An insightful piece of cinema, it inspires people to take action and underscores each person’s responsibility to society. Change is possible and while Wikileaks may not have brought about the holistic change that Assange dreamed for the world, the site did manage to make a difference for a short period in time. And that’s always a good start to start a revolution.