Since Edward Snowden leaked classified NSA documents last year, public debate has soared questioning what men such as Snowden really are. Are they whistleblowers, or are they traitors? Really, though, the question began even before Snowden. It began with Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, and it’s him about which The Fifth Estate asks this question: hero or traitor?
The film has an undoubtedly overstuffed cast, with big names like Laura Linney, Peter Capaldi, Stanley Tucci, and Professor Lup—err, I mean David Thewlis making up the supporting cast, but the film is really only about two characters: Julian Assange, and his right hand man Daniel.
The story begins at a conference where Julian and Daniel meet to present their organization’s vision. Benedict Cumberbatch catches the attention of the audience from the first scene, with everything from the snow-white hair to the bored monotone voice mimicking Assange with expert precision. The presentation that Assange makes in the opening minutes presents the problem of corruption, and the obstacle to whistleblowers: the fear of retribution. If it can be anonymous, Assange insists, the whistleblower has nothing to fear and corruption can be exposed.
That’s Assange’s mission. Daniel believes in it wholeheartedly, and even looks to Julian as a sort of idol, to a degree that is highly unhealthy. His drive for the mission, and for Julian’s acceptance, causes him to lose his job and eventually his girlfriend. Daniel accepts these losses as unfortunate, but drives on, convinced that he is changing the world. Which, of course, he is, but is he changing it in the way that he thinks he is?
The film follows several important leaks that the organization has been responsible for over the years. These include the mistreatment of many peoples around the world, but not without cost. When the personal information of several key political members is leaked, Daniel’s girlfriend questions the morality of the leak (this is early in the film, before she leaves). She asks, rightly so, why they didn’t simply blot out the addresses and phone numbers? After all these people have families, children, which are not guilty of the same crimes. What about them? Aren’t they in danger?
True to form, the film continues to question the methods of Wikileaks throughout its two hours. It slowly unravels that Julian has made his mark almost exclusively through lies and deceit. He lies to Daniel himself on numerous occasions, even telling him that they have hundreds of volunteers, when in reality it is only Daniel and himself. Even when their team expands, he continues to lie and keep information from them, among them the largest leak Wikileaks has ever divulged.
This is why the breaking point finally comes for Daniel. He can no longer look up to a man who achieves his goals through lies and deceit, and who treats possible lives lost from the leaks as acceptable collateral damage. As he tells Julian in their screaming match, “These are real people!”
In end, the film asks some very compelling questions about the organization, and leakers as a whole. It doesn’t so much as try to deny that Assange did good through his organization, but it also doesn’t attempt to hide the bad. It is perhaps the most brutally honest picture we will get of the man, who, according to the film at least, is driven and ambitious, but also arrogant and narcissistic. The most important question the film asks, however, comes in the movie’s most emotional and dramatic scene between Julian and Daniel. Julian insists that their mission is about publishing in full, to which Daniel responds “I thought it was about protecting the sources.” Daniel goes on to say that Julian’s mission was no longer about other people, but about himself. That’s the conclusion that this film comes to. Yes, Assange has accomplished good, but it’s not because he himself is a good person. That’s harsh. But not inaccurate, if you believe the real-life Daniel’s account of things.
That conclusion doesn’t come without its costs, however. Brief views of Daniel’s sexual relationship with his girlfriend and enough profanities to shame some pirates add some strong warning labels. Beyond that, the film has another huge weakness in its need of context. Unless you’ve followed the politics of these leaks, it quickly becomes difficult to keep up, without much explanation given of what’s going on.
However, I do appreciate the film’s conclusion. It acknowledges the good of exposing corruption, but also the importance and value of human life. That’s something that is missing too often in our culture. It pronounces unequivocally that exposing corruption should not come at the cost of more blood.
So then, the question of whether a man is a hero or a traitor really comes down to which one you’re talking about. When it comes to Julian, the film doesn’t want us to treat him as a hero, although possibly a revolutionary that made exposing so much corruption possible. Daniel, on the other hand, is shown to be as close to a real-life hero in the modern world as you can get, standing up to both corrupt regimes, and enemies of corruption when necessary. It reminds us of an all-too-seldom cited fact, that the ends do not justify the means. This is also true when we’re talking about confronting sin. Not all methods of dealing with sin are methods that God encourages or even permits. The enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.