Consider The Fifth Estate's Julian Assange a secular prophet, if you will.
His attention is not on the vastness of God, but on untold gigabytes of information. He speaks not for the divine, but for the documents. Millions of them. Billions. More, perhaps—written and recorded by bureaucrats the world over, sent and read and watched and, finally, hidden. Perhaps forgotten. In these documents is truth, Julian believes: uncomfortable, electric, dangerous truth. In these documents is the power to change the world, to tear down kingdoms and countries and bring about something better, purer, more transparent.
In the beginning—WikiLeaks' beginning—were the words. And the words were Julian's god.
Julian began his devoted service in solitude, according to The Fifth Estate. From the outset, he sought to bring light to the world's darkest places—to force secretive, corrupt organizations and governments to become more transparent and beholden to the people they're supposed to be serving. Soon he cultivated another acolyte in Daniel Berg and drew in a bevy of supporters, admirers and helpers. They considered themselves 21st-century journalists—giving sources and whistle-blowers a safe place to spill whatever info they held. "Even I don't know the identity of our sources," Julian tells Daniel. Anonymity, he believes, is the key to giving these canaries courage. Anonymity, he hopes, will change the world.
And indeed, the world begins to change. Though WikiLeaks is a small organization, its influence begins to grow. It exposes illegalities at a Swiss bank, publishes Scientology's secretive "bibles" and takes on human rights abuses in Kenya. In three years, Daniel brags, WikiLeaks published more scoops than The Washington Post has in 30. And the leaks keep springing.
But as WikiLeaks' influence grows, so do the questions. What if these leaked documents derail diplomatic efforts? Could they needlessly embarrass important (and upright) officials? And what about the people mentioned in these leaks? Could lives be at risk? Could real people be sacrificed on WikiLeaks' altar of free information? Would Julian say that innocent blood is sometimes needed to wash away the world's sin?
The Fifth Estate is a heady examination of WikiLeaks and its controversial founder, Julian Assange. And while there was and is great debate over whether WikiLeaks has been "good" or "bad" in practice, the core ideal (at least as presented in the movie) is plenty positive: To encourage governments and organizations to open up to the cleansing light of the sun and stop doing so many dark deeds.
"No one can bar the road to truth," Julian quotes Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn as saying. He wants, at least on some level, to make the world a better place, and in his eyes that means making it more transparent.
Early in the film, he and Daniel stand on a cathedral balcony and look down at the Reichstag building in Berlin—an edifice topped by a gigantic glass dome meant to represent the government's (idyllic) transparency to its people. The theory behind the concept of the free press (the so-called Fourth Estate) is that, without prodding, governments and organizations tend to be secretive, and secrecy can twist and corrupt those organizations into something horrible. The press is necessary to keep such entities in check. But with traditional journalism dwindling under economic pressures, Julian sees WikiLeaks as fulfilling the function that the free press is flagging on. And with the advent of the global Internet, he can influence activities in "closed" countries in a way that traditional journalism never could. As if to illustrate his point, a woman lauds Julian and his site, telling him that if WikiLeaks had been around back then, the Berlin Wall would've fallen years earlier.
And even if you have serious doubts about what they're doing, you have to still admire the dedication we see from Julian and Daniel. They are, especially in the beginning, activists who are trying to do what's right—even if it means they're risking their livelihoods … or lives. Indeed, Daniel's fired from his job when his involvement with WikiLeaks becomes known. And both worry that various governments may be spying on them, but they persevere anyway.
We're told that Julian grew up in a cult (a detail explicitly refuted by WikiLeaks). And Daniel is warned by his partner, Anke (with whom in real life he shares the hyphenated last name Domscheit-Berg), "If you're going to nail yourself to a cross you should probably know what it's made of."
Daniel and Anke sleep together after their first date. We see her in his bed the next morning, apparently naked, as implied by her bare shoulders. The two fall into a long-term relationship, though Daniel's devotion to WikiLeaks is a source of friction. "Do you remember the last time we had sex?" Anke asks him. He replies he'll remember the next time they do—and the two begin kissing and engaging in foreplay, clutching, touching and stripping off articles of clothing. (Their intimacy is interrupted when Julian barges in.) Another bed-based tryst is shown later.
Julian Assange has been accused of sexual misconduct by two Swedish women—accusations the film acknowledges near the end. He makes an obscene hand motion at one point.
We briefly see two women kiss at a club.
Two of Julian's whistle-blowers are gunned down in the streets of Kenya—assassinated while sitting in a car. The attack is shocking in its suddenness, and we see blood streaked across the car windows.
Most of the rest of the violence here comes in the form of news footage and images from security cameras. "You don't like ugly pictures, you should stay out of ugly wars," remarks a U.S. government official at one point. Most notable, perhaps, is the so-called "Collateral Murder" video (a title thought up by Julian, according to the film) depicting images from a 2007 American airstrike in Baghdad in which several civilians (including two reporters for Reuters) were killed. The black-and-white footage was taken from the cockpit of American Apache helicopters. "Look at all those dead b‑‑tards," someone's heard saying. We also see film of the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. and other scenes of violence during a montage.
Crude or Profane Language
Seven or eight f-words. Double that for s-words. We hear multiple uses of "a‑‑," "b‑‑tard," "d‑‑n," "h‑‑‑," "p‑‑‑," "pr‑‑k," "w-nker," "b-gger" and "bloody." God's name is misused a half-dozen or more times (half the time with "d‑‑n"), and Jesus' name is abused a handful of times too.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Julian and Daniel do quite a lot of their work while in European nightclubs. They imbibe wine, beer and other drinks. Old friends banter over how much one of them had to drink long ago. It's shown that the cult Julian is connected to as a child relied at least partially on psychiatric drugs to control its members. Daniel and Julian down energy drinks to stay awake.
Other Negative Elements
Here's where some of the comparisons between WikiLeaks' Fifth Estate status and the free press's Fourth Estate status start to break down a bit: When WikiLeaks is given a huge cache of American intelligence, Julian and Daniel arrange to work with The New York Times, London's The Guardian and Berlin's Der Spiegel to get the word out. But while we're told that the mainline papers redact (censor) names, addresses or identifiers that might endanger those mentioned in the documents, WikiLeaks releases the documents without exercising any such restraint.
Julian from the start maintains that WikiLeaks has "hundreds" of volunteers. And when Daniel learns that the staff is at the time, really, just Julian and a bunch of fake email addresses, Daniel's furious about having been tricked into lying to several journalists. Julian casually brushes away his unease, calling the ruse a "necessary fiction."
Daniel and Julian eventually have a falling out, and the aftermath is not pretty. Julian smears Daniel's reputation on WikiLeaks' chatboard, saying he likely has some sort of mental disorder. [Spoiler Warning] Daniel responds by sabotaging the site. We hear also that Julian has a 19-year-old son whom he hasn't seen in a year because (he suggests) WikiLeaks demands so much time of him.
In the wake of WikiLeaks' epic 2010 release of hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. government documents, a lifelong diplomat is fired. Onscreen, she and a co-worker share a last drink before she heads off into the parking lot. She contemplates how much time she's worked as a diplomat—how much schooling, how much training she's undergone, how she weighed every word and measured every phrase for impact. She lost her job because of a stray comment she made on an otherwise insignificant document—a document that, like so many others, was blasted out into open Internet waters by Julian Assange.
"I don't know which one of us history will judge more harshly," she says. And it's actually a pretty good question. Does traditional diplomacy, where words are weighed like gold and half-truths are couched in linguistic niceties, have any place on a planet where every secret is just a mouse click away? Is there a place for nuance in a world full of data dumps?
The Fifth Estate is a dense, ponderous (and sometimes foul) look at Julian Assange and the complex array of secrets he helped leak. Julian and Daniel are presented as complementary conduits to an arguably greater good. Julian is cast as a mad prophet—a visionary whose ambition is to change the world. Daniel is Julian's moral check—reeling Julian back in when the white-haired wunderkind goes too far. They eventually split along those very dividing lines, Julian determined to release a treasure trove of documents unedited (which could threaten many lives) while Daniel wants to edit the docs first.
"These are human beings, Julian!" Daniel tells him. "There are lives at stake!"
Julian is ultimately unmoved. He believes that governments and corporations need a forceful check on their power, and in the absence of a robust traditional free press, he believes the task falls to him.
But who, then, is left to check WikiLeaks? Who checks Julian?
This is the central conundrum The Fifth Estate poses. Newspapers have had hundreds of years to develop their own code of ethics to help ensure at least a semblance of responsibility. Not so the burgeoning Internet, fronted for the moment by Assange's WikiLeaks. It has no real gatekeepers, no code of conduct to follow. Is that good? The film suggests not. We all need checks, it says.
So it somehow feels fitting in a curiously circular way that WikiLeaks, long before The Fifth Estate arrived in theaters, obtained and, of course, leaked a script for the project before posting this tweet: "As WikiLeaks was never consulted about the upcoming Hollywood film on us, we've given our advice for free: It's bad".