Julian Assange has not been a happy man this year. Being cooped up in an embassy is bad enough, but there have been not one but two high-profile films released that have pissed him off. Being portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch was not enough to assuage his anger over the treatment of his story in Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate, a dramatic film opening this weekend. Earlier this year, WikiLeaks went so far as to publish an annotated transcription of Alex Gibney’s documentary We Steal Secrets, pointing out every single alleged libel and inaccuracy in the movie. So, of these two films, which is more worth the time of someone looking to learn more about WikiLeaks, Assange, and government secrets? Truthfully, both movies are problematic. But We Steal Secrets is far and away the better prospect.
Both films start off on shaky ground. We Steal Secrets alleges without any real proof that Assange was behind the WANK computer worm. But The Fifth Estate begins on a montage that depicts the entire history of communication, beginning with hieroglyphs, so the point goes to the doc for avoiding such sheer, overwhelming pomposity. In both cases, the films are tying WikiLeaks and Assange’s actions in to a wider history, in the former case hacktivism and in the latter case media as a whole. And this underlies how both movies overreach in their scope.
The Fifth Estate is trying very hard to ape The Social Network. At its center is the relationship between Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl), who joined the website not long after its founding and worked for it until 2010, when the two had a falling out. The movie follows the twists and turns of the early days, before everyone knew what WikLeaks was. In particular, it focuses on the time when they drew the ire of Bank Julius Baer, which got an American judge to shut down the site for a time. The film foregrounds the growing ideological rift between the main characters, at the expense of actually examining what they do. The fact that they are dealing with state secrets is a distant second to rote character study, which is bizarre. This could have been a movie about anything. The reason is that it’s much more of a biopic of Assange than anything else.
We Steal Secrets is also quite fascinated by Assange as a character. It makes sense; the man provides a great example of being blind to misdeed when in the service of what one believes to be the greater good. He went from an exposer of secrets to one who keeps quite a few secrets himself. But the doc also takes the time to explore the issues raised by WikiLeaks’ actions. We live in a time where our institutions keep more from us than ever before, and a good deal of that information deserves to be shared. At its best, the film gets closer to that ethical line, where a right to privacy or security separates from the public’s right to be informed as an electorate.
Both movies drag themselves down in lurid, personal details. The Fifth Estate makes the hacking world look like a cyberpunk Eurotrash dream and revels in Assange and Berg flirting with fetching reporters. We Steal Secrets devotes an unnecessary amount of time to the mental history of Chelsea Manning (then still known as Bradley). It charts the chain of events that led her to leak information to WikiLeaks as if it’s vital, when it really isn’t. By the time one army officer is boasting of how she easily beat Manning down when Manning attacked her, and the film shows an old picture of the officer flexing to underline her physical strength, it all feels incredibly silly.
Where We Steal Secrets shines is in how it provides a full scope of its subject. Gibney and his team were unable to get an interview with Assange (supposedly due to an exorbitant fee for an appearance) or Manning (due to her confinement). But they get almost everyone else with an important role to play in the story, including a few people depicted in The Fifth Estate, such as Berg, British journalist Nick Davies, and Icelandic MP Birgitta Jónsdóttir. They also get interviewees from the “other side,” such as General Michael Hayden, who has been director of both the CIA and the NSA. Unlike The Fifth Estate, which tosses in some anonymous government agents who perform completely fictionalized actions, the doc gives us a concrete view of the machine that generates all the secrets that are in question here.
Criticism of Assange and criticism of WikiLeaks tends to overlap, since the popular perception seems to be that they are the same. But they aren’t, and that’s a distinction that both We Steal Secrets and The Fifth Estate fail to make. But The Fifth Estate wastes itself in that error, offering up nothing but Cumberbatch doing a passable Assange impression while saying nothing about the man’s actions. And given the movie’s high aspirations, represented by that ridiculous opening montage, it’s a great sin. But We Steal Secrets actually gives the audience a good crash course in the history of WikiLeaks and the misdeeds that it exposed. There’s still a greater film to be made about WikiLeaks and our current security state, but in the meantime We Steal Secrets is by far the best we have.