WikiLeaks has, to put it mildly, taken issue with its depiction in The Fifth Estate. Since the beginning of 2013, the organization and its founder Julian Assange have waged war on what they see as a piece of devious agitprop, culminating in a leaked, heavily annotated version of a near-final script. Now, with the movie a week away from its US release, Assange has dismissed it as a "geriatric snoozefest" and published an early letter in which he asked lead actor Benedict Cumberbatch to drop out of the project altogether.
"People love the true WikiLeaks story: a small group of dedicated journalists and tech activists who take on corruption and state criminality against the odds," Assange writes in his statement. "But this film isn't about that. ... Instead of the exciting true story, we get a film about a bland German IT worker who wasn't even there and a fabricated fight over redactions with the old newspapers and the State Department saving the day. The result is a geriatric snoozefest that only the US government could love."
"You will be used, as a hired gun, to assume the appearance of the truth in order to assassinate it."
WikiLeaks has already attacked The Fifth Estate with a combination of factual rebuttals and critical theory about the nature of propaganda, but now it's saying that the film just isn't very good, either. The group's Twitter feed has become a repository of negative reviews, news articles, and complaints about posters that brand Assange a surprisingly glamorous traitor. "Feature films are the most powerful and insidious shapers of public perception, because they fly under the radar of conscious exclusion," Assange said in his January letter to Cumberbatch, responding to Cumberbatch's own efforts to contact him. "As justification it will claim to be fiction, but it is not fiction. It is distorted truth about living people doing battle with titanic opponents. It is a work of political opportunism, influence, revenge and, above all, cowardice."
Cumberbatch once expressed concerns that the script had a one-dimensional view of Assange, though he said it was later rounded out. And Assange said he respected Cumberbatch and enjoyed his work. But he also called him a "hired gun" who will be used to "assume the appearance of the truth in order to assassinate it. ... I believe that you should reconsider your involvement in this enterprise." While Assange had only an early version of the script at that point, the whole thing is based on two books that WikiLeaks has denounced and threatened lawsuits against, and its hero is a man who absconded from WikiLeaks after apparently destroying thousands of documents. WikiLeaks wasn't involved in the film, and it's complained repeatedly that it wasn't even offered an early screening.
The Fifth Estate includes its own weird judo move against Assange: a fourth wall-breaking epilogue in which he tries to deflect criticism. With the film getting mixed early reviews, its most interesting facet may be the weird conversation that's grown up around it — Assange's eloquent letter easily outdoes any monologue he's given in the film. "If the film reaches distribution we will forever be correlated in the public imagination," he wrote. "Our paths will be forever entwined. Each of us will be granted standing to comment on the other for many years to come and others will compare our characters and trajectories." We can only hope Cumberbatch will consider a dramatic reading.