In 1988, a bored teenager with a stratospheric IQ hacked into Minerva, a system of mainframes maintained by an Australian telecom in Sydney. He reportedly assumed the name “Mendax,” from the Latin splendide mendax, meaning “nobly untruthful.” Over time, the feats of Mendax became legend among a global community of so-called “cypherpunks.” He claimed his hacks were about overclocking his skills for thrills, rather than causing real damage.
“Give a man a mask and he’ll tell you the truth,” the adult Julian Assange has said, quoting Oscar Wilde on secrecy. Supply a whistleblower with a digital cloak of anonymity and dark secrets will bloom into sunlight, public awareness. In theory, at least.
For the past three years, the tension between secrecy and transparency, fiction and truth, has dogged the exploits of the WikiLeaks founder in the online and offline worlds. As an information-age Rorschach blot, Assange is viewed as anything from a freedom-of-information ninja to an opportunistic cyber-terrorist.
The face of his Hollywood version, Benedict Cumberbatch, is spread across posters for Bill Condon’s film, The Fifth Estate. Yet it’s not the actor’s face that opens and closes the film, but the face of the actor playing Assange’s WikiLeaks lieutenant, Daniel Domscheit-Berg. The German programmer is portrayed as the cautious voice of reason, while his collaborator is rendered as a narcissistic loose cannon, off on a messianic mission to alienate his few apostles.
No surprise there. The Fifth Estate is based on two books written by authors with personal grievances against Assange: Guardian editor Mike Leigh and Domscheit-Berg himself. Beyond these sources, there is plenty of testimony — both complimentary and condemnatory — on the character of the real-world figure. “He had titanium balls,” one of his acquaintances told Forbes reporter Andy Greenberg of Assange’s refusal to bend to legal threats from the Church of Scientology, back when he was systems administrator at an Australian Internet service provider.
For a guy of no fixed address to put a chisel to the dam of official secrecy, allowing whistleblower leaks to turn into a global flood, and to convince three of the world’s most influential media organizations to coordinate the release of redacted documents … that’s the stuff of Hollywood films.
Therein lies the problem. Our perceptions of many historical figures are filtered through Hollywood’s glitter machine, which buzzsaws Walmart-friendly biographies into soundbite confetti.
What sticks to our collective consciousness are Ben Kingsley’s Gandhi, Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln, Robert De Niro’s Al Capone, etc. Complex personalities become consumable icons, and Assange’s big-screen doppelganger is no exception.
It’s a given that anyone exposing corporate and state crimes (as well as embassy-level chatter) on a global scale would come equipped with a mammoth ego, if not an Olympic sense of optimism. Andy Greenberg’s’ 2012 book This Machine Kills Secrets: How WikiLeakers, Cypherpunks, and Hacktivists Aim to Free the World’s Information paints Assange as erratic and overbearing, but also brilliant and idealistic. Domscheit-Berg comes off as something of a question mark.
But the real scoop isn’t about some bottle-blonde Aussie’s quarrel with a buttoned-down German programmer. It’s the scoops themselves. As The Fifth Estate itself notes, WikiLeaks’ skeleton crew served up more material for front-page stories in three years than the Washington Post had in 30 years. “An analysis by the magazine The Atlantic…would show that close to one out of every two issues of The New York Times in 2011 cite a document published by WikiLeaks,” observes Greenberg.
Far from the glow of the cineplex, the figure convicted for releasing the bulk of that source material, Chelsea (Bradley) Manning, sits out a 35-year sentence in a Fort Leavenworth prison.
NSA leaker Edward Snowden is marooned in Russia. Assange himself is cornered in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. There are plenty of others in similar positions; Barack Obama’s administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers under the 1917 Espionage Act than all previous presidents combined.
And yet the callous, laughing voices heard in the WikiLeaks-released “Collateral Murder” video have never been publicly identified. (In 2007, a U.S. Apache helicopter airstrike reportedly killed eight men, including two Reuters employees. A second Apache struck a van of rescuers, killing three men and wounding two children.) The Fifth Estate touches on those horrific images only briefly, however. The bigger picture of official secrecy versus global transparency takes second billing to a tale of a bromance-gone-wrong. That’s showbiz.