In what may be the least surprising entertainment news story of the month, WikiLeaks has obtained and leaked the script for The Fifth Estate (I mean, c’mon, it’s kinda what they do). The film, which is out in wide release on October 18, is a dramatization of the organization’s origins and conflicts — and, true to form, they’re unhappy with it. “[T]he film is, from WikiLeaks’ perspective, irresponsible, counterproductive and harmful,” notes the extensive “Talking Points” memo the organization has released alongside the annotated screenplay; the organization objects to everything from composite characters to its one-sidedness to (gasp) its contention that Julian Assange dyes his hair. Their missive makes for entertaining reading; it also raises some serious questions about what exactly this transformational organization’s priorities are these days.
Early in the memo, Wikileaks slams The Fifth Estate for being “fictional”: “It has real names, real places, and looks like it is covering real events, but it is still a dramatic and cinematic work, and it invents or shapes the facts to fit its narrative goals.” In other words, no one bothered to explain to WikiLeaks how dramatic moviemaking works. Even in films based on true stories (Lincoln, Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, and The Social Network all leap to mind), composite characters are created to simplify the story; events are rearranged and combined for narrative clarity. (And, y’know, you have to find a place to end a story.) If you want merely straight reportage of facts, then you don’t watch a dramatization — you watch a documentary.
Except they don’t seem wild about those either. Last spring, Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney released We Steal Secrets, a (very good) documentary account of the organization’s rise and importance. Though weighing important questions of national security and personal safety, Gibney’s message is one of full-throated praise of the organization’s work, from the release of Afghan war documents to the diplomatic cables to the explosive “Collateral Murder” video. But he also deigned to question the actions and motives of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, particularly the cult of personality that the organization had transformed into after he became its very public face — and for that, We Steal Secrets was targeted in a very similar way, with an (incomplete) annotated transcript of the film and an extensive public sliming of a movie that is complimentary to the organization, just not a tithe-paying member of the Church of Assange.
“Wikileaks protects people, not reputations,” goes one of WikiLeaks’ talking points, but their laughably strenuous objections to the organization’s cinematic incarnations feels like that very thing. “I think a lot of people want to believe that Julian is a perfect hero,” Gibney told me last spring. “Well, none of us are perfect, and he’s not a perfect hero either.” These campaigns against portrayals of the organization in the mass media play like PR crusades, bent on preventing outside parties from besmirching the reputation of their Fearless Leader. WikiLeaks blasts The Fifth Estate as “only one side of the story,” made “without the involvement of Wikileaks or any of its staff, including Julian Assange” — though as the AP notes, director Bill Condon, star Benedict Cumberbach, and others involved in the production attempted to reach out to the organization during production, “but were rebuffed.”
It’s easier to sit out and second-guess — and to elevate yourself above criticism. The Fifth Estate talking points are filled with scolding about what “journalists are supposed to do,” yet these filmmakers are apparently not to engage their subject with the same degree of skepticism; they actually have the balls to criticize the production of The Fifth Estate for “not financially contribut[ing] to WikiLeaks or any of its defence funds.” Yes, seriously.
Hey, WikiLeaks, here’s a memo for you: the job of documentarians and dramatists is not to contribute to your cause, or to unyieldingly support your leader. It is to examine, reframe, and rethink. They’re not automatically in your corner — and they’re not supposed to be. As Gibney explained, “It’s not a self-critical organization and any criticism is treated as traitorous, and in that way, I found that oddly like a politician or frankly, in many ways, the US government.” But by going from an organization that exposes government malfeasance to one that mounts these exhaustive, thin-skinned attacks on filmmakers, you’re not doing your own reputation any favors. Or, put in more direct terms: don’t you have anything better to do?