AN ISSUE OF OUR TIME
REEL NOTES-THE FIFTH ESTATE
REEL NOTES-THE FIFTH ESTATE
In a nutshell the film revolves around a line spoken by Julian Assange "editing reflects bias."
That is a great premise for a debate and reminds me of countless conversations by journalists. A variation of the theme is do we reflect the culture, like a mirror, or do we shape it by our very presence? Such philosophic pondering and navel gazing seems hopelessly old century by comparison to director Bill Condon's treatment of the Wiki-leaks story.
The idea of Wiki-leaks is profound, but its impact on the world is more shattering. Screenwriter Josh Singer took a book by a former Julian Assange colleague, Daniel Berg and created a rich pastiche of culture, journalism, legal boundaries, personality and a dramatic timeline that centers on Assange and his desire to strip bare all pretense and leave us with a world of transparency. In his world all organizations loose proprietary control of information and only whistle blowers and leakers are protected. That's a helluva conversation to have. But there are intersecting points of view including those of news organizations like the New York Times, Der Spiegel and The Guardian, plus agencies like the State Department with privileged and covert information. It makes for a compelling film that transcends mere entertainment and approaches an ethics tome or philosophic debate.
Condon infuses the work with a strong international accent, with a particularly heavy dose of Berlin artistic, avant garde and hacker culture. Benedict Cumberbatch is brilliant, nuanced, conflicted and spot on as Assange. Daniel Bruhl is compelling as Daniel Berg who fell in and then out with Assange in his quixotic mission.
The production style and graphics are as contemporary as your Droid or iPhone. In a few years they may seem dated, but now they are slick and help move the story. The opening montage is incredible. I told a professor friend that he could use that as a history of communication set piece.
The on screen debate over the release of the Bradley Manning documents is a good microcosm of the larger debate implicit in the film-the philosophic gist of hacking, complete transparency and openness and who gets to set the rules and control the information.
Cumberbatch, and Condon's direction do a good job of portraying Assange's personal journey of commitment or obsession. Assange says the film is a propaganda attack on Wiki-leaks. I don't agree. As major news organizations battle against release of un-redacted cables, Laura Linney, as a State Department official says, "He's bigger than the Times." And that is the core of the premise.
If you care not about the underpinning premise, it's still a fine film, just for the drama and entertainment value. Condon has directed God's and Monsters, Chicago, Kinsey and Dream Girls. He is a gifted film maker. Singer wrote many episodes of West Wing and Law&Order and has talent and experience at making the complex move through good dialogue and strong characters.
This is one of the most important films I've seen and is sure to add to what is a needed and clarifying debate.
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See you down the trail.