It’s no secret that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has a low opinion of the new film, “The Fifth Estate,” in which he’s portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch.
“People love the true WikiLeaks story: a small group of dedicated journalists and tech activists who take on corruption and state criminality against the odds. But this film isn’t about that. This is a film by the old media about the new media. Viewers are short-changed. Step one: write WikiLeaks staff out of the story. Where is our primary spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson, three time winner of journalist of the year, who we deployed to war-torn Iraq? Where is our courageous journalist Sarah Harrison who spent 39 days protecting Edward Snowden in a Moscow airport – and is now in effective exile from the UK? Step two: write the old media into the story. Instead of the exciting true story, we get a film about a bland German IT worker who wasn’t even there and a fabricated fight over redactions with the old newspapers and the State Department saving the day. The result is a geriatric snoozefest that only the US government could love.”
If that wasn’t enough, WikiLeaks has also released a January letter from Assange to Cumberbatch, in which the leaker-in-chief said the upcoming film had “based its entire production on the two most discredited books on the market,” and that the finished product would “depict me and my work in a negative light.” Assange declined to meet with Cumberbatch to discuss the role, suggesting that the film would ultimately force the actor to give a “talented, but debauched, performance.”
WikiLeaks and Assange are clearly attempting a bit of damage control ahead of the film’s Oct. 11 release in the U.K. (followed by its U.S. debut on Oct. 18). But what if that pushback is the wrong reaction?
That’s not to say that Assange should gleefully embrace the film—the script portrays him as something of a hustler who freely lies about his past. (Assange continues to reside in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, rather than face possible extradition to Sweden over allegations of sexual misconduct with two women.)
Whatever its qualities, however, the film could get people talking about WikiLeaks’ role in the broader geopolitical context, and that’s ultimately a good thing for the organization. It’s been quite some time since Assange and company have provided the world with an explosive, game-changing revelation: Between 2010 and 2011, WikiLeaks released a torrent of State Department cables, Iraq War footage, and Guantanamo Bay detention-camp accounts to a buzzing public. In 2012, it pushed out the Syria Files, which failed to have the same seismic impact; this year, it released nearly two million U.S. intelligence documents from the 1970s, which appealed to historians but didn’t exactly rock the world’s governments to their foundations.
This past summer, WikiLeaks also earned some coverage when one of its representatives accompanied U.S. government whistleblower Edward Snowden on his long journey to asylum in Russia. But in that case, it was The Guardian that leaked Snowden’s documents about top-secret NSA surveillance programs, and thus earned the lion’s share of the resulting credit (and controversy). Assange could argue that WikiLeaks helped build an awareness and subculture that encourages leakers like Snowden, but he’d have a harder time showing that his organization remains at the forefront of the movement. For better or worse, a movie would remind people that WikiLeaks is a capable organization that’s accomplished some notable things in the name of transparency.
If nothing else, Assange can take some cold comfort from the case of Mark Zuckerberg, who faced similar issues when the David Fincher-directed “The Social Network” made its debut in 2010. That film featured Jesse Eisenberg portraying Zuckerberg as a borderline sociopath, an insecure creep who rips off his friends in the name of Internet glory. Facebook’s PR team was probably preparing for the worst as the release date approached, but the film—despite its impressive box office, and the awards it won—ultimately did little to harm either the real-life Zuckerberg’s reputation or Facebook’s continuing growth.
If history repeats itself, “The Fifth Estate” will have little negative impact on Assange or his organization—and it could even end up helping, given WikiLeaks’ need for visibility.