‘The Fifth Estate’​ Film Review

The Fifth Estate offers an interesting take on the story behind the controversial hacker/digital activist organization known as WikiLeaks. In the history of great historical cornerstones, WikiLeaks is probably one of the most undervalued. Most people often talks about great historical cornerstones in terms of technologies (e.g., the Internet, personal computers, etc.), but what is more important is the application of those technologies, and this detail is often missed by many people. Because of this, it could be argued that the movie The Fifth Estate offers more than the usual Hollywood interpretation of history-making. The story is still being written and the audience are obviously part of the story, although in a more subdued way.

Set in various locations around the world (Berlin, London, Reykjavik, Kenya, etc.), the film chronicles the story of the people behind WikiLeaks: Julian Assange and Daniel Berg; portrayed in the film as truth-seeking digital activists whose goal, at least according to the film, is to change history through the uncovering and publicizing of the “truth” with the help of whistleblowers and the utilization of the Internet where the WikiLeaks platform is located.

Since WikiLeaks is arguably a historical cornerstone on the application of the Internet, one could certainly argue that the filmmakers had intended to make historical parallels with it. Indeed, if one looks at the film through the historical lens, one would notice that its interpretation of the WikiLeaks story shares many parallels to Martin Luther’s experiences when he started what is now known as the Protestant Reformation. Indeed, at the very beginning of the film, glimpses of the prelude to the Protestant Reformation and the end of the Catholic domination on religious knowledge (the Gutenberg printing press, presumably Martin Luther nailing his ninety-five theses on the door of a Catholic church, and the moulding of a movable type) are shown. This tiny segment of the introduction is, in itself, a clear indication of the filmmaker’s main message: that Assange is the new Martin Luther, his WikiLeaks website is the new ninety-five thesis, and the WikiLeaks website’s release of state secrets is the parallel to the Protestant Reformation — an event which not only ushered in a liberation of religious knowledge (through the utilization of the Gutenberg printing press), but was also followed by a series of religious wars which ravaged Europe for decades.

Thus, if one analyzes the film through the lens of the Protestant Reformation, then the cyber realm is where these wars are taking place and the main object is the protection of (presumably) sensitive digital information and where the belligerents are no longer kings against kings or kings against popes, but states versus other states, states versus nonstate actors, and non-state actors versus non-state actors (blackhats versus blackhats). It is a war on people’s privacy, the (il)legal acquisition of proprietary information, and the covert acquisition of state secrets by state and non-state actors (such as whistleblowers).

This revolutionary shift in the realm of warfare would be one of the reasons why The Fifth Estate might not be seen as enjoyable by those who would like to see more concrete manifestations of “history-making”, such as traditional warfare. Arguably, the film is well made for what it is trying to communicate. But learning the context is important in understanding any film which, at first glance, may appear “badly made”. But people cannot possibly be faulted for their disinterest since even powerful politicians, such as the portrayal of U.S. President Barack Obama, was deliberately shown to be naive in their view of the cyber realm. This naivete could certainly pose as a barrier for some viewers since this new intangible cyberworld requires a whole new way of thinking, a paradigm shift in the way people that view security, digital information and warfare. For instance, the notion of ‘mirroring’, a concept which is central to the WikiLeaks’s very survival, is a fairly easy concept to understand but is a jargon that has yet to be disseminated to the wider public. In a nutshell, mirroring basically means creating “mirrors” or copies of data to servers physically located across many countries thus making that data invulnerable to any one country’s sovereign rules. Thus, WikiLeaks’s data was distributed (and this was shown in the film) in multiple servers across multiple countries with no single country having complete jurisdiction over the information contained within those servers. Because the film requires a little imagination and prior knowledge regarding the basic workings of the Internet, understanding the importance of this layer of the movie requires the use of historical parallels, such as Assange to Martin Luther or the corporate/state secrets to the Roman Catholic Dogma: both of which are useful reference points when contemplating the magnitude of the WikiLeaks’s release in the modern context.

And as a final note to the film’s historical analogy, one could argue that Assange has created a safe facility through his WikiLeaks website, which could be seen as a modern-day iteration of Martin Luther’s Protestant church, a place where individuals who wish to divulge confidential knowledge are guaranteed their safety from being identified and persecuted by those in positions of power (such as the state).

Beyond the story behind WikiLeaks, however, the film also shows the tension between citizen journalism (WikiLeaks) and traditional journalism (The Guardian, New York Times, etc.), and the somewhat complementary relationship between old media and new media, with old media releasing (on a general audience) what the new media (WikiLeaks) has uncovered. This tension lies in their treatment of the confidential information. Whereas WikiLeaks treats all confidential information as almost sacred materials which should be divulged in its entirety (personified in the film by Assange’s almost fanatical view that information should not be screened, censored, or tampered with), the journalists from the newspaper industries were shown as painstaking in their censorship of the materials, such as not revealing people’s identities, double-checking their sources from experts, clarifying the obscure acronyms, and putting the information in context (i.e., basically acting as the conscientious digestive organ of WikiLeaks). In this context, one could see a symbiotic relationship growing between traditional media and the new media. And in a way, it is this relationship which clarifies the somewhat ironic scene where Assange takes Daniel Berg, WikiLeaks’s former spokesperson, on top of a church in Berlin where Assange then talks about how Berlin’s Reichstag dome is a beautiful symbol of how the new Berlin — a city notorious for its history as being the centre of totalitarian control on information — rebuilt itself to be more open, more transparent, and more democratic.

But as the saying goes, “Beauty is only skin deep”, which roughly translates that external attractive appearances should not be automatically associated with some inner goodness or proper ethics. Indeed, Assange is portrayed as seeing the superficial beauty of how Berlin has rebuilt itself to become a more cosmopolitan place, but the filmmakers also wants their viewers realize how complete transparency poses many problems, affecting not only those in positions of power but also those whose livelihoods or lives are endangered because of the careless release of their identities through sites such as WikiLeaks. Certainly, the film forces its viewers to reflect on the the actions of organizations, such as WikiLeaks and asks: Are organizations such as WikiLeaks critical of the information they are releasing? In other words, do these organizations consider the people on the other side (the people who are potentially affected by the release of information on the public (e.g., informants) — people who are not necessarily in the positions of power), or is the outcome of releasing confidential information to the public (which could be very substantial) more important than reflecting on the fate of individuals on the other side? These are ethical and moral questions that the film illuminates as it tells the story of the rise of WikiLeaks.

In terms of the issue of cyber security, the film briefly delves into the issue of how humans could prove to be the weak link between the cyber security infrastructure designed to protect sensitive information from being revealed to the public and the public’s desire to gain access to these sensitive information. One could perhaps argue that this issue should have been given more attention by the filmmakers, perhaps they should have shown even a brief glimpse into the story of Bradley (now known as Chelsea) Manning (the U.S. Army personnel who leaked the largest set of state secrets to the global public), such as the issues which had compelled him to release such a massive trove of confidential documents which endangered the lives and reputations of many ordinary individuals. Indeed, since one of the major layers in the WikiLeaks saga is the issue of digital activism and the film’s viewers would have benefited in seeing how these cyber activists could technically be anyone. The whole film would have gained a whole another layer in terms of portraying how cyber security and cyber activism is not just a domain for sophisticated hackers gaining access to sensitive information, but that it could also be (otherwise) normal individuals who happen to have unlimited access to confidential information by virtue of their position in their place of employment.

Overall, the film offers a good entertainment value for those who only seek to learn the filmmakers’ interpretation of the WikiLeaks story; otherwise, it offers very little in terms of delving into the issue of cyber security (at least beyond the topics on mirroring, black hats, and software vulnerability). The film’s screenplay could also have been written better, since the inclusion of Daniel Berg’s trysts with his girlfriend, Anke, interrupts the flow of an otherwise good story. In terms of its strengths, the film certainly makes it clear from the very beginning that WikiLeaks’s controversial decision to release the thousands of confidential documents is a significant historical event — an event which is perhaps comparable to that of the Protestant Reformation; an event akin to demystifying the actions of those in positions of power just as Martin Luther has helped demystify the writings on the Bible. If anything, The Fifth Estate offers a number of moral and ethical dilemmas to this brave new world through which viewers could decide for themselves how to judge Assange, Berg, and WikiLeaks in relation to their personal convictions.

I have a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Alberta. I am also a Junior Architectural Technologist.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store