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Is The Fifth Estate the All the President’s Men for the Digital Age?

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Fifth Estate

The Fifth Estate recalls the 1976 whistle-blower classic — and shows how much has changed.

The feature drama The Fifth Estate chronicles the rise of WikiLeaks, perhaps the most controversial organization of our time. And while the website has been posting anonymously-sourced news leaks for only eight years, the film calls to mind the whistle-blower classic All the Presidents Men, released in the pre-digital world of 1976. A comparison of the two movies shows how much the distribution of information has changed.

The fifth estate is comprised of individuals who use the Internet to keep powerful institutions accountable...

Directed by Bill Condon, The Fifth Estate opened 2013’s Toronto International Film Festival. The title refers to the successor of journalism, the so-called “fourth estate.” (This term itself first came into use in the 18th century, expanding on “the three estates,” of European society - clergy, the nobility, and commoners.) The fifth estate is comprised of individuals who use the Internet to keep powerful institutions accountable, wielding such tools as WikiLeaks, which has posted millions of documents somebody didn’t want you to see.

In the film, the charge is led by enigmatic WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, and organization spokesman Daniel Domscheit-Berg, played by Daniel Brühl. In director Alan J. Pakula’s All the Presidents Men, Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford portrayed, respectively, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, the Washington Post reporters who exposed the Watergate scandal.

Woodward and Bernstein—or “Woodstein,” as they were collectively called—are hard-nosed journalists. All the Presidents Men depicts how they smelled a cover-up surrounding the 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, and how their investigation uncovered U.S. government involvement right up the chain. Their work took down no less than President Richard Nixon, who resigned in 1974.

WikiLeaks has had more scoops in three years than the Washington Post has had in 30

The Fifth Estate’s protagonists, meanwhile, are 21st-century computer nerds. Before WikiLeaks, the Australian Assange was a hacker and computer programmer. Domscheit-Berg, a German, worked in IT security. The film can’t resist drawing the comparison, however. Before a couple of representatives of British daily The Guardian meet with the pair, one mockingly refers to them as Woodward and Bernstein. The film also cops Internet guru Clay Shirky’s line that “WikiLeaks has had more scoops in three years than the Washington Post has had in 30.”

The website’s instantaneous dissemination of secret information is rendering obsolete the investigative skills that made Woodstein rock stars. The juiciest drama in All the Presidents Men focuses on the reporters trying to wrest facts from their leads. Who could forget Hoffman instructing a source to either hang up while he counts to 10, if his proposed Post story is wrong, or to stay on the line if it’s correct? Or Redford gleaning information in clandestine parking-garage meetings with the man known only as “Deep Throat”?  

Before the Digital Age, it was that kind of digging that yielded scoops. Woodstein’s Watergate coverage earned the Post a Pulitzer Prize. Now WikiLeaks holds that kind of devastating classified information, and media outlets looking to get scoops tied to WikiLeaks releases do so by striking deals with the website for a sneak peek, as have The New York Times, The Guardian, and Germany’s Der Spiegel.

What WikiLeaks does is a simple act, but it’s a brave one that has made it an enemy of private institutions and political bodies around the world. And it, too, has toppled the mighty. As The Fifth Estate dramatizes, in 2008 WikiLeaks released information exposing tax-evasion schemes by international bankers. “We took down a billion-dollar bank. This is crazy!” Domscheit-Berg exclaims in the film, coming to understand the website’s power. 

It gained greater notoriety for posting a video of a U.S. air strike in Baghdad that killed a reported 11 men—most of whom were unarmed—including two journalists. The video is more visceral than any document could be, and not surprisingly figures prominently in the movie. WikiLeaks then issued war logs from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, exposing hundreds of informants and potentially endangering them.

In All the Presidents Men, the villains are clearly defined, even if one of them held the world’s most powerful office. Whether their actions should be exposed is never in doubt, and they meet shameful ends at the hands of two sometimes bumbling but incorruptible reporters. The Fifth Estate offers a new set of questions for the Digital Age. Assange sees WikiLeaks as a platform that should release all the information it receives, without bias. But Domscheit-Berg insists that, as journalists, WikiLeaks stalwarts should be guided by the greater good in deciding what to make public.

Assange claimed to have read an early version of Josh Singer’s screenplay, and dismissed it as “a hostile work.”

Director Condon offers a complicated portrayal both of the issues and of Assange, who, as of this writing, is holed up in Ecuador’s embassy in London, where he enjoys diplomatic asylum while the U.K. government looks to extradite him to Sweden to face charges of sexual assault against two women. Assange claimed to have read an early version of Josh Singer’s screenplay, and dismissed it as “a hostile work.”

Of course, cinematic representation depends on the source. The Fifth Estate is based partly on Domscheit-Berg’s memoir Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the Worlds Most Dangerous Website. He and Assange had a permanent falling-out that saw Domscheit-Berg and others leave the organization, and he portrays his former boss as a paranoid megalomaniac. The producers also relied on WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assanges War on Secrecy, by Guardian journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding, who reiterate this characterization.

All the Presidents Men is based on the book of the same name penned by Woodward and Bernstein themselves. There’s nary a whiff of messy personal lives in the film. No screen time is dedicated to, say, Bernstein’s then-recent divorce; and perhaps the biggest controversy that erupted was a contention that Deep Throat might have been a composite character. (In 2005, former FBI associate director Mark Felt finally confirmed that he was Deep Throat.)

What the two films boil down to is the importance of the free flow of information. In All the Presidents Men, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) barks, “Nothing’s riding on this except the, uh, First Amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country. Domscheit-Berg dedicates his book to the First Amendment.

 

Mark Dillon is a Toronto-based freelance journalist and author.