WikiLeaks: The Fifth Estate
Vs We Steal Secrets

Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Brühl in The Fifth Estate

Two films about the whistleblowing website Wikileaks were released this year – a documentary and a thriller. But which comes out on top?

We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (July 2013), director Alex Gibney 

“If you saw incredible, awful things, things that belonged in the public domain… what would you do?”

Alex Gibney’s documentary We Steal Secrets opens with a NASA engineer talking about the organisation’s computers being hacked in the ’80s by a virus called the WANK Worm. This mischievously named attack was traced to a neighbourhood in Melbourne where the young WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, lived.

Gibney draws on a wide range of sources to tell the story of the whistleblowing website, including US security officials, Guardian Journalists, and ex-Wikileaks employees (including co-founder Daniel Berg). He weaves a tale of contrasting narratives; of national security versus the free press.

But at the core of the documentary is an account of a human tragedy that slowly and methodically rips your heart to shreds: the life of Private Bradley (Chelsea) Manning. A shy, gay soldier who had access to a treasure trove of highly classified material during a posting to Afghanistan as an intelligence analyst.

Manning passes the data on to WikiLeaks, and is eventually arrested and aggressively prosecuted (Manning was recently sentence to 35 years) after he makes the mistake of bragging to a hacker called Adrian Lamo about his achievements. Gibney sensitively hints at Manning’s gender insecurity (Manning recently announced that she now wishes to be known as Chelsea.)

Gibney also uses an interesting device for bringing online conversations between Manning and Lamo to life: the chats are replayed onscreen, as if someone were typing right in front of the audience. The words have a strange power in real time and give the film a sense of unfolding horror.

We Steal Secrets’ best moment is when the Afghanistan war logs are published.

Assange busts some moves on a dancefloor to Telephone by Lady Gaga as CGI representations of data swirl around the screen; information warfare at its weirdest and wackiest.

The fact that Assange is wanted in Sweden for allegations of sexual misconduct is dealt with forensically; it’s clear that Gibney isn’t afraid to discuss the issue, and this gives the documentary a balanced and intelligent feel.


We Steal Secrets

The Fifth Estate (October 2013), director Bill Condon

“Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth…”

The Fifth Estate tells the same story through the eyes of WikiLeaker Daniel Berg (played by Daniel Brühl), right up until his gradual ejection from the organisation.

It’s the tale of an abusive relationship set in cyberspace; of falling in and out of love with an ideal and with an individual.

Daniel meets Assange at a technology convention in Switzerland, and becomes his closest (maybe even only) confidante, right up to the release of the Afghanistan war logs in collaboration with The Guardian.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s Assange explodes onto the screen; white-haired, charismatic, icy, and grotesquely vain. His knack for upsetting those around him is given a weak explanation: that he is somewhere “on the autistic spectrum”.

There is a poor attempt at a backstory, when Assange’s upbringing is mentioned (his father left home and his mother dated a cult-member). Assange also gives various explanations for his white hair, which has echoes of the Joker from Christopher Nolan’s Batman films talking about “how I got these scars” – but they never go anywhere.

What we’re left with is a story too shallow and fence-sitting to be of much value, either as a drama or as a piece of recent history. It deals with the biased nature of its source materials (the film is based partly on Berg’s book) by avoiding detail, and fills the void with frenetic tracking shots of cyberspace and a cool techno soundtrack.

Julian Assange has already dismissed it as “Hollywood Propaganda”, and even wrote a letter to Benedict Cumberbatch imploring him to not portray him. But he needn’t have bothered – the film isn’t propaganda, it’s just dull.

There are plenty of ideas nicked from Hackers and The Social Network, and the scenes set in newsrooms have so many unshaven journalists storming in and out of offices that you wonder how they have time to do any journalism. Even Cumberbatch’s remarkable performance can’t save The Fifth Estate.

Finally, director Bill Condon very nearly avoids mentioning the fact that Assange is wanted in Sweden for allegations of sexual misconduct, which seems strange for a film about transparency and freedom of information.


Summary: We Steal Secrets gets under the skin much more than The Fifth Estate, and despite the fact that it’s a documentary, packs an emotional punch and isn’t afraid to make its point.

Oli Rahman 

Oli watched The Fifth Estate at Curzon Soho Cinema — see their site for all the latest news, events and screenings

Posted on 29/10/2013 by thedoublenegative