The new trailer for DreamWorks' "The Fifth Estate" takes us to the heart of the WikiLeaks debate. When Julian Assange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) leaked a video of a U.S. military helicopter firing on unarmed civilians in Baghdad, was he arming the world with information we deserved to know, or was he threatening American security? And what about the subsequent leaks, including more than 90,000 military documents about the war in Afghanistan? Was that information the world really needed to know?
When, in the film trailer, Assange's colleague Daniel Domscheit-Berg (played by Daniel Brühl) challenges him after the WikiLeaks dump entangles them with the U.S. government, yelling that “lives are at stake,” Assange answers: “What about the lives of the civilians in these conflicts?”
It’s a compelling question, one that seems meant to sway the audience in Assange’s favor. But director Bill Condon insists that the film doesn’t take sides. “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 told Entertainment Weekly. "The idea behind the movie is to raise the questions, not to answer them, but to sort of present the complexity of the issues."
Opining about WikiLeaks in April 2010, The Times' editorial board wrote:
Videos such as these are extremely valuable for the public to see. We must understand what is being done in our name when the United States is at war. But we also must know that pictures may not tell the full story.
A few months later, the board argued in defense of WikiLeaks, saying that:
What motivates WikiLeaks to post classified material is barely even interesting, much less important. Rather, the germane question is whether the U.S. and its allies are best served by secrecy or debate. And the answer is obvious: No democracy can or should fight a war without the consent of its people, and that consent is only meaningful if it is predicated on real information.
That is not to say classified material should be published in haste or with indifference. Thankfully, WikiLeaks and its media colleagues appear to have behaved thoughtfully in their handling of these documents. The New York Times sought and received guidance from the Obama administration on especially sensitive materials, and even WikiLeaks redacted thousands of pages that included names of people whose safety might be jeopardized. Those are the actions of responsible journalists.
And shortly after that, the board took President Obama to task for his hunt for leakers, writing:
It is understandable that the administration has secrets and wants to keep them. But this campaign to flush out sources has the feel of chest-thumping and intimidation. It is one thing to protect information that might put Americans in danger or undermine national security; it is another to bring cases against whistle-blowers and others who divulge information to spur debate and raise questions about public policy.
But then, after WikiLeaks revealed U.S. diplomatic cables in November 2010, the board took a harsher view:
Many disclosures of classified information, such as the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, have served the public interest by shedding light on the previously obscure development of government policy. The latest document dump by WikiLeaks, consisting of diplomatic cables rather than military reports, so far falls short of that noble purpose, though it contains some fascinating -- even titillating -- details. The primary objective seems to be to embarrass the United States and complicate its foreign policy.
“The Fifth Estate” comes out Oct. 11.
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