Bobby MacPherson gets to the bottom of what makes the Julian Assange story so compelling.
2013 has already seen documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, and will overall see three films on release that engage with the Wikileaks story and its enigmatic founder, Julian Assange. It’s no mystery why – Wikileaks’ cultural impact is profound. The radicalism and mystique of its infrastructure, too, is no less so, with its volunteer journalists dedicating their time and expertise to blowing the lid off global political subterfuge.
At least, that’s what Wikileaks’ remit would have us believe, and it’s certainly hard to argue with the results. In 2009, WikiLeaks released 86 telephone intercept recordings of Peruvian politicians and businessmen involved in the 2008 Peru oil scandal. In 2011, Wikileaks published 779 secret documents pertaining to detainees in Guantanamo Bay, highlighting the spurious allegations made against detainees to justify their detention.
Recent years have seen the repercussions of being a digital Robin Hood
So far, so Robin Hood. But recent years have also seen the potential repercussions of this unregulated leaking of information we were never meant to know. In 2009, Wikileaks published the results of an army test, conducted in 2004, of electromagnetic devices designed to prevent IEDs from being triggered. The document revealed key aspects of how the devices functioned and also showed that they interfered with communication systems used by soldiers. While the army had begun to deploy newer technology by the time of the article’s publication, there were still soldiers in the field utilising a military technology rendered useless by mimesis. These people were endangered by Wikileaks.
But ambiguity in the arbiters of our information is not new or particularly exciting filmic ground. No, what truly makes the Wikileaks story so ripe for cinematic adaptation, more so than its high stakes and drama, is the fact that it operates via new, digital media.
Digital media has been a demonic force in Hollywood since the 80s
Since 1983′s WarGames, the anonymous brutality of digital media has been a common demonic force in Hollywood. But it’s only in the last few years that new media has truly come under fire culturally, with films like The Social Network highlighting its dark corporate conception, Catfish documenting its possible dangerous applications and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo presenting digitally-procured information as life-ruining currency.
Even risible action films like 2009′s Gamer explored the recent trend of online gaming, presenting its players as sadistically detached from their violence by the anonymity of their chosen media. Our digital landscape, it seems, is just as frightening and uncertain as our political future, and the Wikileaks story manages to meld both of these concerns together to whip up the perfect paranoid storm.
More on Assange: Planet Ivy’s reaction to his interview with ABC News
We Steal Secrets is the only film of the three thus far released and already it is clear that scepticism regarding Wikileaks’ altruism, as well as paranoia regarding its application, are coming in to play, the documentary heavily implying that a young Assange was one of the hackers responsible for endangering the Galileo spacecraft in 1989. And while Assange is reported to have responded favourably to Underground: The Julian Assange Story (an Australian production starring Anthony LaPaglia), he is reported to be unhappy with October’s The Fifth Estate, which stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Assange.
It’s uncertain whether The Fifth Estate is just sceptical or a plain character assassination
Assange has complained that The Fifth Estate presents a “serious propaganda attack on WikiLeaks and the integrity of its staff, as a ‘lie built upon a lie.’” While it’s uncertain whether The Fifth Estate is the product of digital-age scepticism or just plain character assassination, director Bill Condon’s assertion that the film will “explore the complexities and challenges of transparency in the information age” certainly implies the former.
Perhaps, then, if Wikileaks had been founded in a different time, maybe as a print media enterprise, we would be lauding its attempts to democratise information, the plucky underground insurgent magazine having long been a staple of the political underdog story. As it is, Wikileaks’ chosen media is too young and too invisible for us. Hollywood and culture at large continue to regard it with an overriding sense of fear and scepticism, justified or not.
How Assange heard about The Fifth Estate: Wikileaks sent leaked script for Wikileaks film
Featured image: Dreamworks Pictures
Picture: Jigsaw Productions; Matchbox Pictures