In an age when no one’s privacy is safe, even Big Brother has to worry about keeping his secrets.
The debut trailer for The Fifth Estate, a true-life thriller about the hemorrhage of government data in the Wikileaks age, depicts the early years of the clash between the most powerful nation on Earth and a group of well-connected hacker journalists.
Judging by the trailer, the movie seems to lean toward celebrating the rebel forces of Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his Wikileaks brethren, but director Bill Condon (Kinsey, Gods and Monsters, Dreamgirls) tells EW that’s not his intent.
“The movie presents him neither as hero or villain. We just try to present who he is and let you make up your mind,” Condon says. “I think, in fact, he’s neither.”
Condon also said his film never got any government pressure or interference – a surprise given how much effort from the CIA and Pentagon put into understanding what kind of story Zero Dark Thirty planned to tell about the takedown of Osama Bin Laden.
“If you look at movies where that might have happened, they are movies that need something from the government, and that isn’t anything we did,” Condon says. “We had a few sources that worked in the State Department, but we weren’t asking for any special access, so there was no reason to engage them.”
There are still a few months to go until the Oct. 11 debut of The Fifth Estate, and Condon has watched as the sequel to his story has played out in the news.
While Condon finished his film, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden hopped from country to country seeking asylum after revealing the extent of the U.S. government’s mass surveillance program. Assange himself, holed up in Ecuador’s London embassy to avoid extradition to face allegations of sexual misconduct, has been trying to lend a hand despite his compromised position.
“It was so strange, I have to say, when you’re making a movie, and editing it, and you’re seeing the story play out again, with some of the same lines being used by the government,” Condon says. “Some of the exact same arguments are being applied to a completely different case. It’s quite eerie, actually.”
Did it lead him to alter the story in any way?
“It didn’t change anything, but it confirmed just how complicated the story was,” Condon says. “You can see by the reaction to [Snowden] people have quite different points of view on what happened.”
The Snowden case has galvanized The Fifth Estate with renewed relevance: Are we better off with these whistleblowers revealing the actions of our governments and financial institutions? And who is a journalist and who is merely an activist — or do the two have to be separate?
Is the truth always better to know, even if it undermines national defense?
“The idea behind the movie is to raise the questions, not to answer them, but to sort of present the complexity of the issues,” Condon says.
The trailer begins with the now famous video of U.S. military gunning down a group of people in Baghdad in 2007. Except it turned out that two Reuters journalists were among the dead, and two children were wounded. (“Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle,” one of the American fliers says on the video.)
It also depicts the Wikileaks effort to expose banking malfeasance, and other noble causes. But there is also an innate danger in the wholesale dumping of government information, potentially exposing government agents and revealing critical surveillance methods to the suspects being monitored.
“It doesn’t present [Assange] as a flat-out hero,” Condon says. “I think if you watch it, there’s a constant shift back and forth between the point of view. Ultimately, the reason he fascinates me is the reason I was interested in [2004’s] Kinsey – to me the best true stories are about characters whose public obssessions and private acts connect to each other.
“Only Assange could have done something as extraordinary as invent Wikileaks and get as far as he did. And only Assange could have made the mistakes that ultimately made people questions whether that was the right thing to do.”