Sunday, October 6, 2013

Both Hero and Villain, and Irresistible October 4, 2013 Both Hero and Villain, and Irresistible By DAVID CARR Before there was a documentary about WikiLeaks — before there was a major motion picture about its founder — Julian Assange was a star. With his mysterious hacker back story and shock of silver hair, Mr. Assange burst into public consciousness in 2010 with WikiLeaks’ release of the Apache helicopter attack video and, in the process of revealing millions of secrets, unlocked a rarefied kind of fame. An unfolding tale of a swashbuckling avatar against powerful forces was a movie trailer waiting to happen. The mythmaking was under way long before the spring release of “We Steal Secrets,” the documentary directed by Alex Gibney, and well in advance of the buildup to “The Fifth Estate,” the Bill Condon movie due Oct. 18, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Mr. Assange. The WikiLeaks-Assange story has snaked through countless twists and turns that played out on multiple platforms all over the world, scanning as a movie that has unfurled in real time. In that sense, the first film about WikiLeaks is the one that happened right in front of our eyes, one that left governments scrambling, media organizations gasping and regular people guessing about his next move. Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images Julian Assange in 2010, speaking to reporters. Already a documentary subject, he is now the focus of “The Fifth Estate.” Given its high profile and cinematic elements, the WikiLeaks tale was catnip to the movie industry. At one time, there were five films about Mr. Assange in development, with the documentary and the new drama eventually winning the race and going into production. The movies, each directed by an Academy Award winner, have sparked enormous discussion and remarkable pushback from WikiLeaks and its supporters. It is a measure of our times, and perhaps Mr. Assange’s appetite for renown, that a technology designed to enable anonymity for whistle-blowers became an engine of celebrity. He is, even absent the attentions of Hollywood, one of the more recognizable faces on earth. It helps that he inhabits the role of provocateur so well. Mr. Assange is Australian by birth, but his accent is transnational, reinforcing the impression that he is a new kind of human, a product of the Internet who lives on the digital grid and in our collective consciousness. But he wears white and black hats with equal ease. His critics say he has behaved carelessly, some say recklessly, a view of Mr. Assange that gained traction after he was sought for questioning about accusations of sexual assault in Sweden. Facundo Arrizabalaga/European Pressphoto Agency Julian Assange in 2012. Handsome, dashing, conflicted and pursued, Mr. Assange is a kind of freelance spy who engages in black ops against powerful multinational interests. How different really is that from every Bourne movie you’ve ever seen? Sure, the damage he inflicts is with a flick of the mouse rather than a fusillade of gunfire, but his credentials as international man of intrigue are unassailable. And the fact that the peripatetic globe-trotter is now walled in by the Ecuadorean Embassy in London is a remarkably paradoxical third act. “Even while he is attacking our movie, you can’t help but feel how vulnerable he is in this moment,” Mr. Condon said, adding that Mr. Assange was “stuck in a self-imposed cell, and there is something deeply tragic about that.” Mr. Gibney said that Mr. Assange expresses, and for some people fulfills, a durable human impulse. “People desperately need and want a hero, and here you have someone who can set up a computer and instantly be inside the neural pathways of the entire Web,” Mr. Gibney said. “It’s pretty hard to resist the story of a guy roaming the world armed with nothing more than his laptop.” In both “The Fifth Estate” and “We Steal Secrets,” technology is a persistent character. In the same way that “The Insider” (1999) seemed to make reporters out to be action figures with weaponized cellphones — remember Al Pacino as Lowell Bergman whipping out a clunky cellphone as if it were an AK-47? — “The Fifth Estate” is rife with scenes of Mr. Assange rushing into a room and snapping open his computer with a flourish. Laptops never looked so sexy or powerful, and the WikiLeaks story often seems like a sequel to “Revenge of the Nerds” writ large. By trying to stop the government’s digital bots from taking over our lives, Mr. Assange would seem to be fighting on behalf of all mankind. He is Tom Cruise in “Minority Report,” Harrison Ford in “Blade Runner” and Matt Damon in “Elysium.” But Mr. Assange also echoes a less modern cinematic type, the lone wolves of paranoid ‘70s cinema. As a man on the run, he brings to mind the C.I.A. analyst Robert Redford played in “3 Days of the Condor” or the reeling Dustin Hoffman being chased through “Marathon Man.” You can go even further back and find an analogue in Frank Sinatra in “The Manchurian Candidate.” Then again, Mr. Assange is fond of saying he will crush an opponent “like a bug.” Through that prism, he is closer to a Bond villain — stateless, vaguely Euro-ish, with stunt hair and a remarkably cool demeanor. But to understand the appeal of a character like Mr. Assange in the current cultural context, the small screen might be a better place to look. He is an outlaw who lives by his own code, as was Tony Soprano, but his closest counterpart is probably Carrie Mathison, the C.I.A. operative on “Homeland,” skilled and omniscient but with a messianic zeal that tends to create a great deal of collateral damage. Jasin Boland/Universal Studios As a character, Mr. Assange contains traits of past screen figures who’ve worked outside the norm, like Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in “The Bourne Supremacy.” On the big screen, the two movies cast Mr. Assange as a tragic and self-seeking figure, a leader of a cause that conflated his personal interests and the movement’s. Perhaps no one could shoulder the scrutiny that Mr. Assange has lived through, but he does not play the game of making nice with the media. As I have written before, I once had lunch with Mr. Assange in the English countryside, and while he was enormously gracious, fun even, in showing me and my family around the farm where he was under house arrest, he was also reflexively provocative, somewhat hilariously insulting me and the place I work for. In Mr. Assange’s paranoid worldview, large, multinational financial interests have had a secret handshake with governments, principally that of the United States, and have together prosecuted a war on privacy, freedom and economic fairness. The reason that paranoia is so appealing? He turned out to be mostly right. Paramount Pictures Robert Redford in ''Three Days of the Condor.'' Every time you open up a news site, the government seems to get its hands farther and farther up your skirt. In that sense, we are not just the audience in these movies; we are part of a target-rich environment, and so we root Mr. Assange on in spite of his shortcomings. Mr. Assange has made it clear that he hates both films, which comes as no surprise from a man who sees agendas and lies everywhere he looks. Mr. Gibney’s film may be a work of journalism, but its rise-and-fall narrative did not sit well with its subject. WikiLeaks put out an annotation of a partial script that takes issue with practically everything in the film, beginning with the title, which is described as “irresponsible libel.” The memo adds, “Not even critics in the film say that WikiLeaks steals secrets.” Mr. Gibney is accused of selective editing, underappreciating the historic nature of the organization’s work and rendering Chelsea Manning (previously known as Pfc. Bradley Manning) as a caricature, among many, many other complaints. Mr. Gibney, who has gone after many of the same targets that WikiLeaks has taken on, found himself dealing with incoming from its allies in the press and elsewhere. Chris Hedges, a former reporter for The New York Times who now blogs at, accused him of making a work of “agitprop for the security and surveillance state,” intended to marginalize WikiLeaks and Mr. Assange. Mr. Gibney said he followed the facts and told the story they revealed, nothing more. “The degree of vitriol has been amazing,” Mr. Gibney said. “He is a remarkable figure, narcissistic in the extreme and, as they say, beautiful from afar, but far from beautiful.” Predictably, a work of drama purporting to depict real events has already picked up a great deal of withering reaction from Mr. Assange and his supporters. In a quotation sent by a WikiLeaks staff member — Mr. Assange is, as behooves a star of his magnitude, surrounded by layers and difficult to access — he suggested that “The Fifth Estate,” apart from being wrong about himself and WikiLeaks, is doomed commercially. “Most people love our work and its ongoing David versus Goliath struggle,” he said. “These people form the backbone of the WikiLeaks cinema market. But rather than cater to this market, DreamWorks decided to cater to other interests. The result is a reactionary snoozefest that only the U.S. government could love. As a result the film has no audience and no promotion community. It will flop at the box office and deservedly so.” In an e-mail, Kristinn Hrafnsson, a WikiLeaks spokesman, said, “I don’t recognize the Julian in these films, nor the fundamental essence of what we are doing.” In a phone call, Mr. Condon made it clear he was proud of his film. A narrative feature requires license to pack vast amounts of history into a commercially viable length, and Mr. Condon said the film is true to its subject, including its depiction of his alleged hypocrisy around organizational information and WikiLeaks. Kent Smith/Showtime Claire Danes plays a character in “Homeland” with similarities to Mr. Assange. “For a public figure, he is one of the most thin-skinned subjects I have ever seen,” Mr. Condon said. “He believes and advocates for transparency, except where he is concerned. He doesn’t realize it, but he has become the consummate tragic hero who sowed the seeds of his own demise.” The chronic, multifront war is a fact of life at the off-screen version of WikiLeaks. Even people at odds with Mr. Assange don’t deny him his place in history. “Julian was able to pull together the biggest news organizations on earth and get them to cooperate around a single leak, holding the story for three weeks,” said James Ball, a former WikiLeaks associate who now works at The Guardian. “That is an amazing feat.” That Mr. Assange ended up in a dispute with Mr. Ball, his media partners and just about everyone else around him adds to the myth. What is he against? Whatever comes his way. “Most people avoid confrontation, but Julian escalates every single time,” Mr. Ball said. “He has the guts, the arrogance and the insanity to take everyone on. I think part of the reason that there is so much interest in WikiLeaks is that people respond to that.” Many of the great public debates show up in the movie house, so it should not be surprising to see a simulacrum of Mr. Assange on the big screen. And it’s even less surprising that the nature of what is on the screen is the beginning of yet another debate. History, in this instance, refuses to sit still. The first draft is a Web document, subject to endless annotation. © 2012 The New York Times Company Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218. Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at] Go to "The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs

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